Archive for Monday, July 10, 2000

Russian troops weary of Chechnya

July 10, 2000

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— At the Bachi-Yurt checkpoint in Chechnya, the alert level is high but morale among Russian troops is low.

Soldiers at the checkpoint on Sunday expressed disillusionment about prospects for hunting down elusive Chechen independence fighters who have turned to hit-and-run attacks and car and truck bombs.

"We should get out of here before it is too late," said Sgt. Alexei Ilyin, 19. "There will never be peace here."

He said local residents "smile at us, pretending to help us, but they won't hesitate to shoot us in the back if the opportunity arises."

Lt. Vladimir Volodin, 24, said efforts to track down rebels were not working.

"All the mopping-up operations in the towns and villages don't bring tangible results," he said. "What we should do is comb the forest areas."

The soldiers serve with an Interior Ministry unit from the city of Kursk in southern Russia. Their job is to search the town for rebels and monitor traffic to and from the border with the neighboring region of Dagestan, nine miles to the east.

Russian troops nominally control most of Chechnya after rolling into the rebellious region in September, and are chasing rebel bands hiding in the southern mountains. But they remain vulnerable to sniping, bombings and hit-and-run attacks in lowland areas they captured months ago.

The Chechens last struck in force on July 2, when they hit Russian positions with five suicide truck bombs that killed at least 33 soldiers and wounded 84, according to the official toll.

Rebel spokesmen promised more attacks, but instead things were quieter after Russian forces arrested dozens and clamped down on residents' movements. But the soldiers in Bachi-Yurt, many of them teen-agers, drew little encouragement from the clampdown.

"We'll leave here soon enough ... Let them kill each other themselves," Pvt. Dmitry Ligachev, 19, said.

Soldiers from one of the units hit by the suicide attacks returned Sunday to their hometown of Chelyabinsk in the Ural Mountains. Television reports showed crowds of teary relatives who greeted them on the train platform with hugs and kisses.

At least 22 members of the Interior Ministry unit were killed when their barracks was destroyed, and dozens more were wounded.

Security was tightened Sunday in the Chechen capital, Grozny, with only those who could show proof of residency allowed in, the Interfax news agency reported, quoting officials in the mayor's office.

The bodies of two Russian soldiers were found on the outskirts of the Chechen capital over the past 24 hours, apparent victims of rebels who also stole their weapons, the Russian Interior Ministry said Sunday.

Russian troops were driven out of Chechnya by independence fighters in a 1994-96 war. They returned 10 months ago after Islamic militants raided villages in neighboring Dagestan, and 300 people died in apartment bombings the government blames on Chechens.

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