Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 36

On February 19, Chechen rebels carried out a bloody attack on a Russian Interior Ministry troop column. Former Chechen Foreign Minister Movladi Udugov told Germany’s Deutsche Welle radio the same day that rebel forces attacked the column as it moved from Gudermes to Argun, firing on it with rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and automatic weapons. A three-hour battle ensued, during which six vehicles were destroyed, including and armored personnel carrier. Udugov claimed that twenty to thirty Russian soldiers were killed in the attack, while an anonymous official in Chechnya’s pro-Moscow administration told the Associated Press that five soldiers died on the spot and that an undisclosed number were wounded. Meanwhile, Udugov claimed that a Russian checkpoint in the center of Argun was blown up the same day and that residents there awoke yesterday to find that Islamic flags had been raised around the town. The rebel spokesman said that the rebels had carried out a serious of raids and attacks in other regions of Chechnya–a claim confirmed by official Russian reports and Western news agencies–and denied that the Russian military had started to withdraw its units from the republic. According to Udugov, the federal forces are simply being rotated (Deutsche Welle, Russian agencies, February 19; Associated Press, February 20).

Even if Udugov’s claims were somewhat exaggerated, there is little doubt that the situation in Chechnya remains extremely complicated. Five people were killed in attacks yesterday, including two Chechen policemen. Meanwhile, OMON special police forces discovered and defused a bomb in a five-story apartment building in the Oktyabr region of Djohar [Grozny], the Chechen capital, while security forces defused two other large bombs yesterday–one in the Zavod region of the capital and another in Argun (Russian agencies, Radio Liberty, February 21). On February 19, Russian bomb-disposal technicians found and defused six bombs along roads in the republic. Technicians working to remove mines around the village of Zamai-Yurt, in southeastern Chechnya, were attacked by rebels, and the federal forces were forced to call in helicopters to repel the attackers (Russian agencies, NTV, February 19). During the evening hours of February 16-17 an ethnic Russian family of four was murdered in Djohar. According to Yury Ponomarev, the capital’s acting chief prosecutor, nine ethnic Russian civilians were murdered, apparently by the same gang, whose modus operandi was to arrive late at night at the home of the victims, whom they cold-bloodedly finished off with shots to the head. According to Ponomarev, the most recent murders of Russians in the capital were aimed at destabilizing the situation in the republic on the eve of the February 23 anniversary of Stalin’s deportation of the Chechens. The ethnic Russian population of Djohar, it seems, is no longer counting on the federal forces to protect them and have started forming their own self-defense units, which are carrying out nightly patrols using home-made flashlights (Russian agencies, February 17). Meanwhile, Akhmad Kadyrov, head of the pro-Moscow administration in Chechnya, warned yesterday that that terrorist acts might be carried out on February 23 to mark the anniversary of Stalin’s deportation, but ruled out the possibility of large-scale battles. While Kadyrov called the anniversary “sorrowful,” he called on the republic’s residents not to hold meetings or demonstrations (Russian agencies, February 20).

Russian Interior Minster Vladimir Rushailo, on a visit to Chechnya on February 19, emphasized that with the withdrawal of regular army troops from Chechnya, the Interior Ministry would have the main role in stabilizing the situation in the republic (NTV, February 19). At the same time, Moscow can point to at least some formal signs that the situation in Chechnya is stabilizing. On February 17 the first passenger train in a very long time passed through the republic, although it did so under heavy guard by federal troops and police (Russian agencies, February 17). Even during the rule of Djohar Dudaev, well before the first introduction of Russian troops into Chechnya, bandits regularly held up passenger trains. As a result, Dagestan was de facto cut off from Russia, and the lack of a function railway line across Chechnya was one of the reasons that Moscow sent in troops in December 19994. In 1995, railroad lines across were reopened, but they were again cut off because of banditry following the withdrawal of Russian forces from Chechnya in 1996.