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Russian backlash against Chechens begins

President Putin steps up the fight against the rebels this week, and asks US to blacklist them as terrorists.

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Many experts say that, with the winter loss of foliage cover in mountainous Chechnya, some fighters may drift across the border to areas such as the Pankisi Gorge, where they rest before returning to battle in the spring. Georgia insists that recent security operations have brought this lawless area under control – a claim Moscow derides.

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"What is Georgia?" says Mr. Nikonov. "It is a failed state that controls nothing on its own territory."

But Moscow's hand has been stayed, at least so far, by clear US warnings not to interfere in independent Georgia. American Special Forces have been in Georgia since March, training a special antiterrorist unit of local forces to deal with security problems like the Pankisi Gorge. Whatever the merits of Moscow's case against Chechen rebels, there are suspicions that the Kremlin is using the issue to intimidate pro-Western Georgian leader Eduard Shevardnadze and promote its own neoimperial interests in the region.

"A Russian military strike against Georgia would probably not have much effect on Chechens, since they seem pretty good at hiding," says Dmitri Furman, an expert with the official Institute of European Studies in Moscow. "But it might serve as a kind of demonstration to Shevardnadze that it's not a good idea to defy Russia."

If the Kremlin succeeds in convincing the world that even moderate Chechen leaders such as Mr. Maskhadov are terrorists, however, opposition to broader Russian military action could evaporate. Maskhadov, the military leader of Chechen resistance in the 1994-96 war of independence against Russia, was elected president in the republic's only democratic poll in 1997. Though he condemned last month's Moscow hostage-taking after the fact, Russian leaders say that such a large operation must have taken place with Maskhadov's knowledge – or, that if he was unaware ot it, he is incapable of controlling Chechen rebel forces and thus not worth talking to.

The persuasiveness of Moscow's argument is being tested in Denmark, where a close aide to Maskhadov, Akhmed Zakayev, was arrested on a Russian warrant last week and is being held by Danish authorities pending documentary proof of his connections with terrorist activity.

If Denmark accepts the Russian evidence and extradites Mr. Zakayev, it may mean the end of Maskhadov as the leader of Chechnya's national struggle for independence.

"If Maskhadov is discredited as a leader, then there is no one with any credibility left in Chechnya to talk to," says Alexander Iskanderyan, director of the independent Center for Caucasian Studies in Moscow. "This will suit the hawks who want to impose terms on Chechnya by force, not negotiate peace."

Cracking down on the home front as well, Russia's Press Ministry announced tough policies on journalists covering antiterrorist operations such as the war in Chechnya, which include a ban on interviewing terrorists or their supporters.

The pro-Kremlin Duma majority earlier approved tighter rules, which will bar anyone from analyzing terrorist demands "on an amateur level" in the Russian media without first consulting security forces – an apparent reaction to the open, audience-participation format used by two Moscow TV networks to cover last month's hostage crisis.