President Vladimir Putin, for his part, defended Russia’s military operation in Chechnya during his official visit to France yesterday. “When we speak of double standards, we have in mind the following. The terrorist organization known worldwide, al-Qaida, is operating in Afghanistan, and it was protected by the criminal Taliban regime,” Putin said in a press conference following his meeting with French President Jacques Chirac. “Everybody agrees that this must be fought against. The same al-Qaida also operates in Chechnya, and it is protected by another criminal regime. If this regime differs somehow from the Taliban, it is only in that it is possibly bloodier,” Putin said, referring to the Chechen rebels, adding: “The blood of those Russians who died in the autumn 1999 terrorist bombings is no different in color from the blood of those who died in the September 11 terrorist acts in New York. Terrorism is our common problem, which must be resolved responsibly, without fuss, hysterics, bargaining or speculation.” At the same time, Putin said any Russian official or serviceman who was proven to have committed crimes in Chechnya would be prosecuted (NTV.ru, Russian agencies, January 16).
While the Russian authorities have blamed the September 1999 apartment buildings in Moscow and Volgodonsk, which killed more than 300 people, on Chechen terrorists, some media and the opposition tycoon Boris Berezovsky have alleged that the Russian special services were behind the blasts, which served as a pretext for the ensuing military operation in Chechnya. Berezovsky said in recent interviews that he was preparing to release documents proving the Russian special services’ participation in those bombings. Berezovsky said the documents would be made public by the end of February (Kommersant, January 12; see the Monitor, December 17, 2001, January 14).
The violence in Chechnya, meanwhile, continues unabated. Rebel units today carried out two attacks on convoys of cars and armored personnel carriers ferrying Russian troops, one in Vedeno and another in Urus-Martan. According to initial reports, nine Russian servicemen were killed and three wounded in the attacks. The Izviestia.ru website reported later, however, that in fact thirty Russian servicemen had been killed in Vedeno, with the rebel attackers taking three federal soldiers prisoner, and killing at least five in Urus-Martan. An unnamed military source told the website that Sergei Yastrzhembsky, Putin’s aide on Chechen issues, had ordered that the real casualty numbers be kept secret (Izvestia.ru, January 17). Also today, a car carrying the vice premier of Chechnya’s pro-Moscow government, Ali Alavdinov, was fired on in the center of the village of Mesker-Yurt, in the Shali district. Alavdinov was unhurt but his driver was seriously wounded. Meanwhile, the federal forces used Mi-8 helicopters and Su-24 jets to carry out five air strikes against rebel positions around Chechnya over the last 24 hours (Polit.ru, January 17). The Russian military claimed yesterday it killed twenty-nine rebels and captured 237 over the last week (Strana.ru, January 16).
MOSCOW’S FRIENDS IN THE BALTICS AND BELARUS.