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Chechnya's perils and plight

A European human rights delegation arrived Sunday, following abduction of an American aid worker.

By Scott Peterson and Fred Weir Staff of The Christian Science Monitor / January 16, 2001



MOSCOW

Just like war, kidnapping may be an extension of politics by other means. But the recent seizure of an American relief worker in Chechnya, Russia's separatist republic, also underscores the fragile vulnerability of aid workers in murky war zones.

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Raised anew are concerns that aid work has become even more difficult, as Chechnya endures its second winter of conflict. The episode also explodes claims by Russian forces - considered by some to be prime suspects in this abduction - to have restored order in the republic after 18 months of war.

The United Nations and other relief agencies suspended operations in Chechnya after Kenneth Gluck, with the Nobel Peace Prize-winning humanitarian organization Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders), was seized from an aid convoy by masked gunmen near Stari Atagi, south of the Chechen capital, Grozny, one week ago.

It is the same area where another American relief worker, Fred Cuny, disappeared during the first Chechen war in April 1995.

"Our concern is the people in need. They are the ones suffering needlessly through this," says Jim Lewis, the logistical coordinator for MSF-Holland in Moscow. "I'm sure the people who abducted Kenny are aware of the repercussions."

Russia immediately blamed Chechen guerrillas, who in turn denied any role, and vowed to find Mr. Gluck. Russian officials also accused MSF of being in Chechnya illegally - an allegation the group denies - and noted that kidnapping was once a top money-earning industry during Chechnya's failed bid at self-rule from 1996 to 1999.

Moscow has made it clear that aid workers are unwelcome and made relief access extremely difficult. In a late December appearance on a Russian talk show, Russian officials were visibly discomfited when Gluck, the lone dissenting voice, criticized Russia's role in Chechnya and became somewhat emotional about the continued suffering of Chechens.

Russian forces have created an atmosphere of "psychological intimidation," says Lipkhan Basayeva, a member of the Russian human rights group Memorial, who is based in Ingushetia. In recent months, Gluck and his local staff had sometimes been delayed at Russian checkpoints, and accused of "collecting military information," says Ms. Basayeva.

Chechen civilians have alleged they were held for ransom by Russian troops. "It is very easy to provide protection from the bandits. The problem is to provide protection from federal troops," says Basayeva. "From our point of view, [Gluck's] kidnapping was either an organized and well-planned action [by Russians] or an initiative of some Russian military groups controlled by nobody."

Russian officials dismiss such claims as an "exotic version" of events.

Russian troops stand accused of a host of human rights abuses against civilians, and are frustrated that a campaign once billed as "limited" - and officially launched, in part, to stop kidnapping - has bogged down.

"Nobody wins," says Alexei Malashenko, an analyst with the Carnegie Endowment in Moscow. The Chechen people are the "biggest" losers, as well as Chechen rebels, "because their image as lawless and undisciplined criminal gangs has been vividly revived.

"It is not an unqualified propaganda success for Russia" either, he adds, "because Moscow's inability to control the region or even provide elementary security is clearly underlined by this episode."

Caught in the middle are relief agencies like MSF, which since February last year has expanded work in Chechnya to include supplying medical help to 120,000 people per month.