The arrival of the New Year has seen a new round of claims and counterclaims by the Chechen rebels and the federal forces fighting them about troop losses and civilian casualties. Aleksandr Potapov, deputy head of the Federal Security Service’s department for Chechnya, claimed today that more than thirty rebels had been killed during a special operation being conducted by federal forces in Chechnya’s Kurchaloi district. The operation was ongoing and the rebels were mounting strong resistance in the village of Tsotsan-Yurt, Potapov reported. He added that special operations were also being carried out in a number of villages and settlements in the republic’s Shali district and that four rebels along with an unspecified number of federal troops had died in the fighting there (Interfax, January 3).
In general, the federal forces in Chechnya appear to have escalated their counterinsurgency operations over the last several weeks. On New Year’s Eve, sources in the office of Sergei Yastrzhembsky, President Vladimir Putin’s aide on issues involving the Chechen conflict, claimed that seventy-three rebel fighters, among them foreign “mercenaries,” had been killed over the previous 24 hours, and that twenty rebels had been taken prisoner. The sources also claimed that Ruslan Chilaev, identified as a field commander ranked sixth in the rebel leadership’s hierarchy, had been killed in a special operation. According to Yastrzhembsky’s office, Chilaev had been responsible for the downing of a military helicopter last September over Djohar (Grozny), the Chechen capital, which killed ten senior Russian military officers, including two generals (see the Monitor, September 18, 2001). Commenting on the year-end anti-rebel push, the commander of the federal forces in Chechnya, General-Lieutenant Vladimir Moltenskoi, proclaimed that “after a series of successful operations by the federal forces against the separatists, the remnants of their bands are retreating from the plains into the mountainous areas, but they can expect to be destroyed or taken prisoner there as well” (NTV.ru, December 31, 2001).
Not surprisingly, the Chechen rebels are putting a different spin on the latest fighting in the breakaway republic. Chechen sources were quoted yesterday as saying that forty federal troops and ten civilians had died during the federal side’s special operation in the Kurchaloi district and that ten Russian troops, including two commandos, had been killed in Tsotsan-Yurt. Ten civilians, including several women and a 1-year-old child, were killed when Russian forces fired on the village, the Chechen sources claimed. The Russian military command in Chechnya denied these reports yesterday, countering with claims that its forces had killed twenty-one rebel fighters and taken twenty-three prisoners in Tsotsan-Yurt and another village, Oktyaborskoe (Lenta.ru, January 2).
Meanwhile, the Chechenpress news agency, which is close to Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov, has detailed acts of violence and looting allegedly committed by Russian troops in the village of Starye Atagi over December 26-30. In one incident, the troops reportedly demanded that a local resident who was carrying a six-month-old infant produce proof that she was married and extorted 2000 rubles (approximately US$65) from her when she was unable to do so. The news agency named eleven families whose homes were reportedly robbed, adding that many other homes suffered the same fate. Chechenpress said that more than forty Starye Atagi residents had been detained over the four days. “The majority of these, after being tortured and harassed, were released for ransoms ranging from 2000 to 5000 rubles,” the agency claimed. Chechenpress alleged that several villagers were murdered. In one case, “the Russian occupiers” used dogs to kill a local resident. In another, a Starye Atagi resident who was detained December 27 after being caught trying to escape the village died after being tortured and buried alive in snow. Chechenpress cited eyewitness testimony that the Russian servicemen involved in the violence in Starye Atagi were under the influence of alcohol and narcotics (Chechenpress, January 1, 3).
As is usually the case, none of these claims and counterclaims from the warring sides was independently verified. What seems clearer is that the contacts initiated between the Kremlin and Maskhadov during the second half of last year, including the meeting last November between Viktor Kazantsev, Putin’s representative to the Southern federal district, and Akhmed Zakaev, Maskhadov’s representative, have not created a momentum toward a political settlement of the Chechen conflict.
Indeed, as 2001 came to a close, Yastrzhembsky appeared to pour cold water on the prospects for negotiations. Reacting to reports in the Russian press that Maskhadov, who was elected Chechnya’s president in 1997, had issued a decree extending his five-year term an additional year, Yastrzhembsky declared: “If Maskhadov’s legitimacy used to be close to zero in the past, it has reached negative levels now.” The Kremlin aide called Maskhadov an increasingly “marginal” figure “who does not influence anybody,” including other rebel field commanders. Yastrzhembsky also claimed that most Chechens do not support either Maskhadov or other rebel leaders, who, because of the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, are finding it increasingly difficult to get funding from abroad (Kommersant, Lenta.ru, December 27, 2001). Such comments would suggest that the Kremlin has little interest in seeking a negotiated settlement to the Chechen war (see the Monitor, October 25, November 19-20, December 10, 2001).
PUTIN FISHING FOR TROUBLE IN THE BALTIC STATES.