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Monday, 3 July, 2000, 13:51 GMT 14:51 UK
Analysis: Chechen bombers haunt Russians
interior troops
Interior troops from St Petersburg leave for a tour of duty in Chechnya
By BBC News Online's Stephen Mulvey

Suicide bombings are a new tactic for Chechen guerrillas, but one which they have quickly learned to use to deadly effect.


There is only one thing that can be done: to find and destroy them

General Gennady Troshev
If their first truck-bombing last month killed a handful of Russian troops, one of Sunday's five attacks - in the town of Argun - killed at least 25.

Terrified Russian servicemen responded with wild and apparently random bursts of fire on residential areas.

The incident underlines the predicament of the Russian troops, as they attempt to garrison a republic where the local population, or a large part of it, remains resolutely hostile.

No safety

Enemies can emerge from nowhere, and just as quickly melt back into their surroundings.

Russian casualties
June 22-29: 17 killed, 71 wounded
June 15-22: 20 killed, 59 wounded
June 8-15: 12 killed, 58 wounded
Since August 1999: 2,369 killed, 6,946 wounded
Source: Russian Defence Ministry
This applies to bombers, and to fighters who act as part-time guerrillas taking part in isolated operations, then returning to "civilian" life.

People who are prepared to die for the national cause, or for Islam, can do even more damage - and there is little Moscow can do to stop them.

Russian troops are constantly aware that the guerrillas remain a formidable enemy in some parts of the southern mountains, but two of Sunday's attacks occurred near the heart of the Russian operation in Chechnya - in Argun, just outside the capital, Grozny, and in Gudermes, the home of the pro-Moscow Chechen administration.

New threats

The lesson is that Russian troops are not completely safe anywhere in Chechnya - and in some locations they are very vulnerable.

They are already tied down by strict convoy instructions when they move about: troops must not travel in small numbers, or without armed support, nor may they travel at night or in bad weather when close air support is impossible.

Nonetheless, Russian deaths from ambushes, and increasingly mines, continue in a steady trickle.

Warlords have also issued worrying threats to start attacking Russian civilian targets.

Policing

Meanwhile, Russian politicians insist that things in Chechnya are going smoothly.

Leave-taking in St Petersburg
The dangers of Chechnya are well known
Last week, as federal troops and Chechen guerrillas battled near the village of Serzhen-Yurt, the secretary of the Russian Security Council, Sergei Ivanov, reported that the situation was "unstable, but has an obvious positive tendency".

The guerrillas' resources were practically exhausted, he said, adding that they they had switched to the tactics of separate terrorist acts, and that more and more Chechens were deciding to co-operate with the new pro-Moscow administration.

In accordance with this cautiously optimistic outlook, Moscow has been steadily withdrawing troops since April, as part of what it sees as an eventual transformation from a military to a policing operation.

Support dwindles

This approach assumes that the pared-down military garrison will be strong enough to continue wearing down the rebels, and reducing their effectiveness.

Support for the war
November: 70+%
March: 64.7%
June: 51.7%
Source: Romir independent research centre
But in his response to the suicide bombings, General Gennady Troshev seemed, by contrast, to envisage a re-invigorated offensive campaign.

"There is only one thing that can be done: to find and destroy them. Talks will not help," he said.

There are signs that the Russian public is becoming slightly more critical of the conduct of the campaign.

A majority still supports it, but it is a very narrow majority.

Despite his personal popularity, President Vladimir Putin may need to take some big risks - such as a raid to capture or kill key guerrilla leaders - if he is to forestall a growing tide of discontent.


Key stories

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See also:

31 May 00 | Europe
11 May 00 | Europe
20 Mar 00 | Europe
27 Apr 00 | Europe
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