Federal security forces yesterday (April 21) carried out a large-scale “zachistka” (antiguerrilla sweep) in the Chechen capital of Djohar (Grozny). The operation coincided with the anniversary of the death of Djohar Dudaev, the first Chechen president, who was killed by a Russian rocket six years ago, but a spokesman for Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov, Mairbek Vachagaev, said that the rebels had no plans to mark the occasion with an attack against Russian forces in the breakaway republic (NTVru.com, April 21).
And no rebel attack took place. The federal operation appears to have been carried out mainly in response to last week’s attack on troops belonging to the city’s OMON special police unit, which is under the control of the pro-Moscow Chechen government. On April 18, saboteurs blew up a bus carrying seventeen members of the Grozny OMON only 200 meters from their base in the capital. Five minutes after their bus was destroyed by two mine explosions, other OMON members arrived in an automobile to help their dead and wounded comrades, only to be blown up in a third explosion, which was followed by heavy gunfire from the ruins of one of the burned-out apartment buildings nearby (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, April 19). While the tallies of the number killed and wounded in the attacks have varied, one report cites the total number dead at twenty-one, with seventeen OMON members killed immediately, and four more succumbing to wounds sustained in the attacks (Moscow Times, April 19).
The commander of the Grozny OMON, Musa Gazimagomadov, was quoted as saying that the attacks were carried out by Rezvan Akmadov, a Chechen rebel field commander who heads a group of rebels based on Djohar’s outskirts. The attacks may, Gazimagomadov apparently said, have been carried out in revenge for the killing of a rebel fighter known as Bagram, aka Islam Chalaev, who headed a thirty-man rebel band and was recently killed in an operation carried out by Russia’s special services. Meanwhile, anonymous journalists in Djohar were quoted as saying that the attack may have been in response to the February 12 appointment of Bislan Gantamirov, former mayor of the capital, as the press and information minister, with the rank of vice premier, in the republic’s pro-Moscow government. The rebels hate Gantamirov, and the feeling is mutual. Rebel sources, however, denied involvement in the April 18 attack, saying that it made no sense to kill the OMON troops, who, they said, protect local inhabitants from the Russian forces stationed in the republic (Gazeta, Kavkaz.org, April 19).
Whatever the case, these latest attacks demonstrate once again the Russian military’s inability to defeat the rebels. In fact, Djohar has for some time been under the rebels’ de facto control. The many checkpoints manned by Russian troops around the capital have proven completely ineffective: Indeed, rebel gunmen fire on them every night from the many ruins of burned-out buildings. Russian troops in the Chechen capital have admitted to the Monitor’s correspondent, off the record, that the most they are able to do there is to defend themselves. As the April 18 attacks showed, some are unable to do even that. In any event, these attacks give the lie to the assertion made by President Vladimir Putin during his State of the Nation address, given the same day, that the “military phase” of the Chechen conflict had been completed (see the Fortnight in Review, April 19).
Meanwhile, Stanislav Ilyasov, prime minister of Chechnya’s pro-Moscow government, announced that the republic’s prosecutor had launched a criminal investigation into the April 18 attacks and was pursuing it vigorously, and promised that the identity of those who carried them out would be uncovered within three to four days. Twelve people have already been detained on suspicion of involvement in that attack. While the names of those who have been detained are being kept secret so as not to undermine the investigation, one of them is rumored to be a Chechen rebel who was wounded during the shootout that followed the three mine explosions. Another is reportedly a girl (RIA Novosti, April 19).
The vows of officials like Ilyasov to bring the perpetrators of the attacks to justice may ring somewhat hollow given the fact that the Russian authorities, for example, have not yet brought to justice those responsible for the series of terrorist attacks in Moscow and other Russian cities in September 1999, which killed hundreds of people and were blamed on Chechen separatists. At the same time, the fact that the twenty-one OMON troops killed in the attacks were Chechen may have great repercussions, given the vendetta tradition in Chechnya and the North Caucasus more generally. Indeed, Grozny OMON chief Musa Gazimagomadov was quoted as declaring a vendetta against those responsible for the April 18 attacks (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, April 19). Djohar’s deputy mayor, Ibragim Yasuev, was quoted today as saying that the “Wahhabis” (a catch-all phrase for Islamic militants) who carried out the attack had made a “big mistake” because they had ignited a blood feud. The Chechen people, he said, are now “divided into two camps–those who support the Wahhabis and those who do not. This is nothing other than a civil war.” It will be a death struggle, Yasuev predicted, in which “only one side will survive” (Kommersant, April 22).
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