The Russian antiguerrilla operation in the Chechen city of Argun has apparently turned into a full-scale battle between federal forces and separatist fighters. Russian media initially reported that fifty rebels had attacked a police unit in the city on December 12 and implied the federal forces had the situation under control (see the Monitor, December 13). Even as late as yesterday, Stanislav Ilyasov, head of the pro-Moscow Chechen government, was playing down the gravity of the situation, dismissing the attackers as “local Wahhabis, bandits and extortionists.” “This happens often,” he said. “The only thing they are able to do is show up somewhere for a few minutes, rampage and leave.” Later yesterday, however, various media was reporting that up to 300 rebel fighters were in the city and that by nightfall the federal forces had launched a large-scale zachistka, or antiguerrilla “cleansing” operation, calling in special army units, special Interior Ministry troops and special services officers, along with tanks and other heavy armor.
Reports on losses during the fighting in Argun were contradictory. According to one report, the Russian side, despite its show of force in Argun, had only managed to kill three rebels (Gazeta.ru, December 13). According to another, twelve rebels were killed in the fighting there yesterday, including Khalid Mutaliev, described by the state news agency Itar-Tass as “one of the heads of the Arab mercenaries” fighting in Chechnya (Itar-Tass, December 13). The pro-Kremlin website Strana.ru claimed that Mutaliev was closely linked to Abu-Al-Valid, a deputy to Khattab, the Jordanian-born Chechen rebel field commander (Strana.ru, December 13). Vsevolod Chernov, Chechnya’s prosecutor, reported today during a visit to Argun that, in addition to Mutaliev, another rebel field commander–identified by his surname, Tokhuev, and his nickname, Isa-odnoruky (One-Armed Isa)–was killed in the Argun battle. Chernov referred to both field commanders as “Wahhabis.” Meanwhile, sources in the Russian military’s North Caucasus headquarters were quoted as saying that the twelve rebel fighters killed and the more than sixty detained during the Argun fighting belonged to “Islamic Jaamati” units set up by Khattab in 1996-1997 with money provided by Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida terrorist network (Kommersant.ru, December 14).
Meanwhile, Nurdin Usamov, head of the Chechnya’s Grozenergo electricity utility, said that Russian security forces “wreaked havoc” at a power station in Argun yesterday, seizing all of its communications equipment and arresting some of its employees (Gazeta.ru, December 13).
KVASHNIN CALLS REPORTS THAT KHATTAB WAS WOUNDED “RUMORS.”