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Archive for Monday, October 28, 2002

Experts say Chechnya war far from over

October 28, 2002

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— The final outcome of last week's breathtaking hostage crisis here will be precisely the opposite of what the Chechen rebels who seized the crowded Moscow theater had hoped, political and military analysts here predicted Sunday.

Instead of ending a war in Chechnya that has entrapped more than half a million civilians, 80,000 Russian soldiers and a few thousand guerrillas for three bloody years, many analysts here predict the hostage-taking will prolong it.

To some who regarded Chechnya's war as primarily a rebellion against oppressive Russian rule, the theater raid demonstrated in graphic terms that the guerillas are willing to carry out large-scale terrorism. It also discredited one rebel commander who has been called a possible negotiating partner if the Russian government ever agreed to peace talks.

"What happened is the Chechen rebels showed themselves without masks," said Alexander Olson, who heads the Public Opinion Foundation, a polling group here. "It has become obvious to everyone that Chechen rebels and terrorists are the same thing."

In the light of the death of 117 innocents, the fact the Russian army is barely able to keep a lid on the militants in Chechnya despite two wars in less than a decade seems irrelevant to many people here. Alexei Malashenko, an expert on Chechnya with the Carnegie Endowment's Moscow Center, predicted the government's position on a conflict that has claimed at least 4,500 soldiers since 1999 will be "more uncompromising."

Both Kremlin supporters and critics predicted that Russian soldiers in Chechnya will be even more brutal in so-called cleansing operations. Those have left hundreds of civilians dead or missing.

"We need a political solution," said Alexander Dugin, a leader of Russia's Eurasia party and an adviser to the speaker of the Duma, the lower house of parliament. "But in the light of these terrorist acts, given the obvious challenge to Russia statehood, this topic ought to be adjourned for some time."

Kremlin supporters said the seizure of 750 hostages demonstrates the rebels are getting desperate and the operation in Moscow will damage them even further. Other analysts, however, contend the rebels have shown renewed strength over the past three months, with a spate of deadly attacks on Russian and pro-Russian troops.

The rebels' new ferocity appears to grow out of an alliance between two rebel commanders, Aslan Maskhadov and Shamil Basayev, who were rivals for most of the war. According to Russian media reports, the two met in July in Chechnya's forested mountains and agreed to team up.

Since then, the rebels have shot down a Russian military helicopter, killing 118 people, and infiltrated areas of Chechnya that were supposedly under Russian control.

Russia's liberals have long advocated talks with Maskhadov, the former Chechen president turned rebel commander who claims to represent the moderate, secular wing of the Chechen independence movement.

But while Maskhadov publicly condemned the theater takeover on his web site, Russian officials have alleged he was deeply implicated in it.

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