Russian Commander: Chechen Rebels Supported by Local Population

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 9 Issue: 20

The commander of the Combined Group of Forces in the North Caucasus, Major General Nikolai Sivak, said in an interview published in the newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda on May 20 that 17 servicemen have been killed in the region so far this year, which is an increase over the same period last year, Interfax reported. “Unfortunately, we were unable to reduce the losses compared to last year,” he told the military newspaper. “Since the beginning of this year up to 27 April, 17 people have died; last year [2007] 15 people died during the same period.” Sivak said that 32 militants had been killed since the start of 2008. “Last year the figure was about the same,” he said.

Sivak said that “on the whole the situation is stable” in the Chechen Republic. “The Chechen police are contributing a lot to stabilizing the situation, and their leaders react to changes in the situation in a professional manner,” he said “The Chechen police have the situation under control and they are helping the troops. A total of 10,000 Chechen policemen serve in the Combined Forces in the North Caucasus,” Sivak said.

Sivak also said that while the militants are currently facing shortages of arms and ammunition, “at the same time, unfortunately, we cannot say that the militants have completely stopped their activities” and “there is still an outflow of young people into the militants’ ranks.” He added: “Many of the militants we catch in the mountains are 20 years old at the most. This means that certain young lads fall victim to Wahhabi propaganda and, unfortunately, leave for the mountains.”

According to Sivak, the reason this is taking place is the high level of unemployment in Chechnya—almost 60 percent of the working-age population—and low wages, which are on average only 2,500 rubles (around $100) a month. “The second reason is that the local population either support the militant groups or remain neutral; they do not oppose them or give them up to the federal forces,” Sivak said. “If it were not for this attitude amongst the people, the militant groups would have been done away with a long time ago.”

“I don’t want to blacken the local population wholesale, since they are helping our soldiers,” Sivak told Krasnaya Zvezda. “The tradition of Caucasian hospitality compels local inhabitants to treat everyone who comes to their home with kindness, as a guest. But the militants skillfully use this and do not terrorize the local population, trying not to bite the hand that feeds them. And they carry out attacks on federal forces: the police, units of the Defense Ministry and Interior Ministry Internal Troops. Including on Chechens serving in the Interior Minister and in the Defense Ministry’s Vostok and Zapad battalions.” Sivak added that the militants are continuing to receive financing from abroad.

Kavkazky Uzel on May 20 quoted Chechnya’s human rights ombudsman, Nurdi Nukhazhiev, as saying that he had received a large number of indignant telephone calls from inhabitants of the republic about Sivak’s comments. Nukhazhiev said that those who called indicated that they fear that in response to Sivak’s claims that the rebels are receiving support from the local population, the federal forces will take actions as a result of which civilians will suffer most of all. Nukhazhiev said Sivak’s comments were an attempt to put too much responsibility for the fight against “illegal armed formations” on the civilian population. According to Kavkazky Uzel, there was no response from the Unified Group of Forces to Nukhazhiev’s comments.

Kavkazky Uzel noted that with the arrival of spring—or, as the military puts it, “the appearance of greenery”—the rebel forces have noticeably increased their activities in the republic’s foothills and mountainous districts, with small rebel units temporarily taking control of villages for a short time on two separate occasions in April. “We would note that the actions of the militants are on the whole targeted at staff of law-enforcement organs and many police officers, especially those working in the mountainous and sub-mountainous districts and villages, are taking precautions when traveling in cars, especially at night,” the website wrote.

Kavkazky Uzel quoted an unnamed police officer in the mountainous Vedeno district as saying that the militants “periodically” set up checkpoints on roads, at which they stop cars and check documents, killing individuals who display IDs indicating they are law-enforcement employees (Chechnya Weekly, April 10).

In March, the commander of the Interior Ministry’s Internal Troops, Gen. Nikolai Rogozhkin, said that 400-500 rebel fighters were operating in the North Caucasus (Chechnya Weekly, March 27). In January, Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov said “illegal armed formations” were still operating in Chechnya, but only in small numbers that did not represent a threat to peace in the republic.

An unidentified gunman fired at a policeman in the Nadterechny district settlement of Znamenskoye on May 22 but was pursued and killed, Itar-Tass reported “A policeman from the Nadterechny district police came under fire at the exit from the Argo restaurant,” a republican Interior Ministry source told the news agency. “The policeman returned fire and then called in reinforcements.” According to Itar-Tass, police then cordoned off the restaurant and first fired warning shots and then fired at the attacker as he tried to escape by car. As a result, the attacker’s car rammed into a road barrier, and the attacker died from his injuries in the hospital without regaining consciousness.

Kavkazky Uzel reported on May 21 that the previous evening, an unknown attacker had tossed a grenade into the courtyard of the Grozny home of an official with the Chechen branch of the Federal Migration Service. No one was hurt in the incident.

Interfax reported on May 18 that three servicemen were wounded that day in a shootout with rebel fighters in Chechnya’s Urus-Martan district. “At 11:20, eight kilometers from the Urus-Martan district settlement of Tangi, an armed encounter with a gang took place as Defense Ministry servicemen were conducting search operations in a forest tract,” a law-enforcement source told the news agency. The source said the rebel group consisted of around 15 people and that the commander of the Defense Ministry reconnaissance group, his deputy and a contract serviceman were wounded in the battle. RIA Novosti reported that three federal servicemen and a policeman were wounded in the incident.

Also on May 18, unknown attackers fired automatic weapons on the local police force building in the Shatoi district settlement of Dai. According to a law-enforcement source, a police officer was wounded in the attack and hospitalized.