Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 45

A unit of Moscow OMON police special forces was ambushed in Djohar, the Chechen capital, yesterday. NTV television reported that twelve were killed and thirty wounded, and that the ambush took place seven kilometers from the center of the capital in the morning, after the OMON unit had arrived in the area from Mozdok, North Ossetia. Chechen rebels reportedly fired on them from the mountain slopes, using grenade launchers and mortars. It is not known how many rebel fighters died because they managed to escape with both their dead and wounded (NTV, March 2). Russian agencies today quoted Russian military officials as saying that twenty members of the OMON unit died in the attack (Russian agencies, March 3).

The ambush puts in doubt the recent claims by Russian military officials that the rebel groups have been effectively defeated. The incident took place deep inside territory supposedly controlled by Russian forces, and the rebel forces were not only able to launch the surprise attack, but also to withdraw with their dead and wounded. This suggests that a full-fledged guerrilla war will start in the spring, when the appearance of vegetation will give the rebels the cover necessary to conduct full-scale operations in the mountains. Meanwhile the rebel fighters are apparently biding their time posing as civilians in the villages, awaiting the end of winter.

Meanwhile, Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov ended a long silence yesterday, and spoke by telephone to various Russian media. Maskhadov claimed that 23,500 fighters remain under his control throughout Chechnya, and that a majority of the rebel field commanders are alive and well. Maskhadov said the triumphal statements recently from Russian military officials do not reflect the real situation, and that they are misleading Acting Russian President Vladimir Putin. Maskhadov said that the rebels had abandoned Shatoi, Shali and other towns and villages–which, he claimed, had been virtually wiped off the map by bombing–but claimed that rebel forces continue to control the Argun Gorge and to operate throughout Chechnya. Maskhadov also denied rumors that he had left Chechnya and said that he was still in command of the rebels’ military operations. Maskhadov urged Putin to begin peace talks (Ekho Moskvy, March 2).

Putin’s reaction to Maskhadov’s statements was completely negative, ruling out any possibility of negotiating with the Chechen leader. Putin also claimed that Maskhadov, in discussions with the head of one European country, had said that he was ready to turn over foreign hostages. Putin said this means either that Maskhadov was either collaborating with the hostage takers or controlled them directly (Russian agencies, March 2).

Putin’s lack of desire to enter into negotiations is understandable. In June 1995, Russian troops also controlled practically all of Chechnya. But following the raid by Chechen guerrillas on the southern Russian town of Budennovsk, led by field commander Shamil Basaev, Moscow began negotiations with the separatists, which allowed them to regroup and gradually come down from the mountains into the lowlands, after which full-scale fighting began anew. Putin clearly does not want to give the Chechen rebels the chance to regroup. He apparently hopes instead to destroy the main rebel groups before the arrival of warm weather, which will create conditions favorable for a guerrilla war.