The plot thickens in Chechnya

Russia began a 'mop-up' sweep yesterday, after it reclaimed towns it

Russia's assault on separatists in its breakaway republic of Chechnya has taken on all the drama of the literary epic "War and Peace."

What Russia promised would be nothing more than a short story has turned into nearly a four-month saga with all the plot twists and turns of a Russian novel.

Acting President Vladimir Putin, the engineer of Russia's campaign in Chechnya, said Russia would wage a NATO-like operation, over in two weeks.

But some four months later, it's definitely not over. Russia's fierce campaign forced some 250,000 refugees into bordering Ingushetia. Some 80,000 of them were later repatriated, with promises of a better life in the towns Russia had taken.

After Chechen rebels mounted surprisingly successful attacks on Russian forces this past weekend, the Russian military is employing a new tack. It is now cracking down hard on suspected rebels - virtually any man of fighting age - thought to be hiding among civilians in Russian-occupied zones of the embattled republic.

The Russian military yesterday claimed they took full control of three towns where the rebels had launched surprise attacks over the weekend: Shali, Argun, and Gudermes. Now, they say, they are mounting a "mopping up" operation.

The towns had been the showplaces Moscow had chosen to display the benefits Russian rule could deliver, such as restored gas and electricity, pension payments, education, and other municipal services.

Russian officials have even spoken of moving the republic's administrative center to Gudermes, Chechnya's second biggest city, to replace the devastated and still-embattled capital of Grozny.

Military officials blame the rebels ability to attack behind what the Russian Army thought were secure lines on guerrillas posing as refugees.

"The amount of liberated territory has increased, and we must of course change tactics," Sergei Ivanov, secretary of the Kremlin's powerful Security Council said Tuesday. "First of all, we must step up the activities of the law enforcement agencies."

The commander of Russian Army forces in the North Caucasus, Gen. Viktor Kazantsev, said Tuesday that "soft-hearted Interior ministry troops manning checkpoints" were responsible for letting Chechen guerrillas through the lines. He did not say how, but made it clear that security would be drastically stepped up.

The Interior Ministry is Russia's national police force, a traditional rival of the Army. And in Chechnya its forces are armed for full combat with their own tanks, armored personnel carriers, and artillery.

Security sweeps

Refugees say Russian troops, who captured the contested towns this week, were ruthlessly sweeping them, sparing only women, boys under 10, and men over 60 from harsh interrogation, and, in many cases, detention.

"Things were normal until Sunday, when the new fighting started in Shali," says Avadi Kheidayev, a middle-aged former Grozny resident who fled as Russians besieged the capital last November, hoping to find safety for his wife and six children.

They took refuge in the village of Novy Atagi, just two miles from Shali, where the local population had declared neutrality and kept rebel fighters out.

Monday, rebels slugged it out with Russian troops in nearby Shali. The family took to the road again, heading for the relative safety of the nearby republic of Ingushetia. According to Mr. Kheidayev, the bus they were traveling on was repeatedly stopped and searched by Russian soldiers. Young men were rudely pulled off. "The Russians were never nice to us, but now they are suddenly very aggressive," he says. "Now they scream at us."

At Sernovodsk, three miles from the Ingush border, everyone was told to get off the bus, and two remaining young men were led away.

Kheidayev says that he has no idea where they were taken. "They were going to take me too, but my wife and children were crowded around. And we begged them not to. An officer said I could go with my family," he says. "Then we walked three hours in the freezing cold to get to Ingushetia."

Kheidayev says life under Russian control was very difficult, although they did restore power, heat, and water for brief periods. "There was nothing to eat but bread and tea. They didn't do much for us."

He says he doesn't support either side in the nearly four-month-old war. "I would be happy to live under any power that provided peace, security, and work, but I don't think that's going to happen."

The last war

In the 1994-96 war, which ended with Russian forces withdrawing from Chechnya, security police used notorious "filtration" centers, a euphemism for concentration camps, to detain, interrogate, and it has been alleged, eliminate suspected rebels.

There have been no documented reports of such camps being used in the current war - so far. But as the Russians apparently target the entire male population of Chechnya as potential enemies, their reappearance may be a matter of time.

"The Russians didn't give us any special trouble until the last few days," says Ahmed Ezhiyev, a young man who fled ingushetia hidden in a busload of women and children on Tuesday from the Russian-occupied village of Gikala, about six miles south of Grozny.

"I don't understand how the [Chechen] fighters are able to move around so that they can attack the Russians in the middle of town. But peaceful civilians cannot move anywhere without being stopped and seized," he says.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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