CHECHNYA: Independence, Islam and Bloodshed
Russian soldiers take up positions around a school in Beslan, North Ossetia that was seized by suicide hostage-takers in September 2004.
In a loose sense, Chechnya is Russian president Putin's Iraq. The London-based defence periodical "Military Balance" says that Chechen rebels killed 4749 Russian troops in Chechnya between August 2002 and August 2003 -- an average of thirteen a day. From the Kremlin, the Russian leadership proclaims it is "fighting terrorists", yet on the ground the situation is more complex.
The second Chechen war may have officially ended four years ago, but the crisis enveloping the restive Caucasian republic refuses to subside, as was shown by the seizure of hundreds of adults and children at a school in Beslan, north Ossetia, in September 2004 by armed rebels demanding independence for Chechnya.
The Chechen conflict began as the struggle for independence from Russia. In 1994, Moscow sent troops into the region to bring it back to heel. With tanks, artillery and bombs, they smashed the centre of the capital Grozny to smithereens, triggering a spiral of violence similar to that the Americans were to experience in Iraq. The rebels responded in the town of Budjonnovsk on June 14th 1995 by storming the local police station and herding 1100 hostages into a nearby hospital. Russian troops opened fire on the building killing 121 people.
Chechen warlord Basayev
The leader of rebels was Shamil Basayev, then aged 30. A former agriculture student, he was involved in the hijacking on Aeroflot airliner in Turkey in 1991. its purpose was to draw attention to the struggle for Chechen independence against the "Russian Conquistadors". When war broke out between Georgia and Abkhas, he rushed to the aid of the separatists fighting in Tbilisi by seizing a travel bus and taking a local dignitary hostage, who was later exchanged for a helicopter. The irony of the story is that the separatists he trained Abkhazian war turned out to be Russian officers, just as the Americans had once trained supporters of bin Laden during their battle against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
Russian troops destroy border village
In January 1996, another rebel leader Salman Raduyev, a former Soviet communist youth functionary, resorted to the same tactics as Basayev. In town of Kislyar in Dagestan, he rounded up 2000 hostages in the local hospital - including children and women in childbed. Taking 165 prisoners, he then set off with his fellow rebels in the direction of Chechnya. They were stopped by Russian troops in the border village of Pervomaiskoye which was razed to the ground in the ensuing battle.
"Chechen" equals "terrorist" in Moscow press
Later in 1996, Russian president Boris Yeltsin, worried about his prospects for re-election, signed a peace deal with the Chechen resistance and terror attacks ceased. They resumed with the start of the second Chechen war in September 1999. The word "Chechen" had by then acquired criminal undertones in the Russian press; it had become a synonym for "terrorist". So when three apartment buildings in Moscow and Volgodonsk were blown up killing 230 people, suspicion as to who might be responsible was treated as hard fact. President Putin has yet to supply proof that Chechens were responsible for the massacre.
Suicide bombers post 9/11
Chechen separatist rebels then discovered a new tactic. On June 7th 2000 two young girls blow up a police station in Alchan-Yurt. They killed themselves and 15 other people. This was the start of Chechen suicide bombings.
When Arab suicide bombers destroyed the World Trade Centre on 11th September 2001, Putin jumped at the opportunity to bracket the Chechen war within a broader, world-wide Islamic conspiracy. The "criminal regime" on the Caucasus was not very different to the Taliban, except perhaps that they were "even more bloodthirsty."
Chechnya had become a symbol for Islamic solidarity. The rebels received financial and logistical support from Islamic organisations abroad, some members were even trained in Syria or Jordan. Some reports say Basayev sent forty men via Pakistan to training camps in Afghanistan even before the outbreak of the first Chechen war. Bin Laden is also said to have dispatched 400 Arabs and Afghans to Chechnya to fight the Russian infidel. They brought Wahhabism to the Caucasus, but the puritanical Islamic sect, which regards all others as heretical, did not find many adherents in Chechnya. Yet the Islamic terror network evidently had little difficulty in finding recruits to wear suicide belts as human tragedies in places as disparate as a Moscow musical theatre and a north Ossetian school have demonstrated.
RIGHT: A lone Chechen woman protesting in Berlin against Russian atrocities in her homeland. President Putin was in the German capital on a cultural exchange visit.