Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 105

On May 28, for the first time since the end of the Chechen war, Russian troops carried out military actions on Chechen territory. Several helicopters launched rockets against positions held by fighters loyal to the field commander Khattab on the Terek River. The attack came soon after some fifty Chechen guerrillas tried to capture a detachment of Interior Ministry troops on the Chechen-Dagestan border. One Interior Ministry officer was killed and thirteen wounded, while more than ten Chechen guerrillas were reportedly killed. It was the largest operation by Chechen fighters since Salman Raduev’s raid on the Dagestani town of Kizlyar four years ago (NTV, ORT, RTR, May 28).

The number of provocations along the Chechen border began to rise significantly in late April, when Sergei Stepashin, then interior minister, announced that security along the border would be heightened and Chechen fighters trying to cross it would be destroyed. One gets the impression that the Chechen field commanders are trying to demonstrate their impunity. Stepashin, now prime minister, apparently wants to show that he meant what he said (see the Monitor, April 30).

At the time Russian troops went into Chechnya in 1994, Stepashin headed the Federal Counter-Intelligence Service. He is now viewed as one of the main initiators of the war and it seems that since he became prime minister, Moscow has assumed a tougher line toward Djohar. This is evident not only in the Russian military’s involvement in the border battle on May 28, but in the Kremlin’s plans to put an end to the growing business of kidnapping-for-ransom in Chechnya. Two Orthodox priests who had been held prisoner in Chechnya for two months were released on May 28, as were five Russian servicemen. On May 29, two others were released: a police official and another Russian solder. Stepashin personally met with the freed priests, and said that the kidnappers should not only be punished but “destroyed” (NTV, RTR, ORT, May 28-29).

According to official information, all the hostages were freed as a result of a joint special operation by the Russian and Ingushetian Interior Ministries. This, however, is questionable, given that in the past the authorities have claimed that special operations have achieved the release of hostages, when in fact ransom payments have done so. Indeed, aides to Nadyr Khachilaev, the Dagestani politician and businessman on the Russian police’s most wanted list, say that the priests were freed as a result of his actions. The first attempt to free the priests was carried out on May 21, when Nadyr Khachilaev, currently hiding from the police in Chechnya, was nonetheless visited by a delegation of Russian State Duma deputies, Interior Ministry and Defense Ministry generals. Even General-Major Vladimir Kizlov, head of the Interior Ministry’s main anti-organized crime unit, went to Chechnya to talk to Khachilaev. Khachilaev says that he was able to convince the kidnappers to release the priests. Meanwhile, fighters loyal to Amir Bagautdina, the main ideologist of Wahabbi Islam in Chechnya, showed up where Khachilaev is hiding and the entire Russian official delegation almost wound up as hostages (Kommersant, May 25, 29).