Summer campaign by rebel fighters casts doubt on official claims that the war is over.
In his first public address to the people of Chechnya, the republic’s pro-Moscow president Ramzan Kadyrov announced on July 9 that the fighting had “finally and irreversibly” ended. Chechnya was now “the most stable region in the North Caucasus”, he said.
That same day, however, rebel fighters carried out an attack on a Russian military convoy in the mountainous Vedeno region of southeastern Chechnya. They blew up an armoured troop carrier that was escorting a group of trucks transporting soldiers, and then raked it with automatic fire. According to official reports, three soldiers were killed and five injured in the raid.
A few days earlier, a group of soldiers investigating minefields near the village of Agishty in the same region came under attack. One soldier was killed and several were wounded.
Such reports suggest that at the very least, the armed insurgency in the mountains of Chechnya has not been defeated and that a summer campaign by the militants is under way.
Locals in Vedeno region say clashes are still happening on a regular basis.
“Shootouts and attacks by fighters have been going on here fairly frequently, especially recently,” said 44-year-old Askhab Mukuyev from Vedeno. “For example, last week fighters fired at the district administration building and the headquarters of the South Battalion [a special forces unit that comes under the Russian interior ministry but is staffed by locals]. Then there are constant explosions and shootings by military and security officials. It’s just that the authorities are not making this public.”
“Local security forces come here from time to time,” Mukuyev went on. “They seal off a section of forest and begin combing the area. As a rule, the fighters fire on them, after which the security forces pick up their dead and wounded and beat a hasty retreat. And then the area is subjected to artillery fire and air strikes.”
People here say that in recent weeks, the insurgents have grown so bold that they have started coming into villages in large groups, encountering no resistance from the security forces.
On July 9, Russian commanders announced that all interior ministry units in Chechnya had been put on an increased state of alert.
One interior ministry official, speaking confidentially to IWPR, said that he was seriously concerned that the situation was deteriorating in the republic. He said separatist leader Doku Umarov had received a large sum of money from abroad a few weeks ago, and the militants had also acquired 400 police uniforms. As a result, groups of guerrillas disguised as police had been moving around at night, planting explosive devices on the roads, especially in the highlands of Chechnya.
“Under the pretext of checking documents, they stop vehicles and shoot security officials,” he said.
The upsurge in rebel activity has not just been confined to the mountainous south. On the morning of July 6, police officers in the Oktyabrskoe district of the Chechen capital Grozny surrounded a house in which a fighter was holed up and subjected it to intense gunfire.
A squad then stormed the house, and in the ensuing firefight, one police officer was killed, one was wounded, and the militant blew himself up with a grenade.
Outside Chechnya, the picture is also worrying. In neighbouring Ingushetia, several dozen guerrillas attacked an army base used by a Russian regiment on the night of July 6. They directed gunfire at it for 20 minutes, withdrew and vanished. No information was available on any casualties.
The headquarters of the border guards in Ingushetia’s main city, Nazran, was also attacked several times in late June and early July.
This summer escalation of violence suggests a coordinated plan by the rebels to step up their activity, in the view of a local political analyst who asked not to be named.
“However much they say in Moscow and Grozny that it’s all over for the fighters, that there is chaos and confusion in their ranks and that they lack the manpower and capacity to mount serious operations, recent events suggest that – to put it mildly – that is not the case,” he said.
“The armed resistance in Chechnya and neighbouring regions is still alive and is still a fairly serious force. It’s just that the military and political leadership in Russia has become hostage to its own claims that the fighting is over and that the fighters no longer present a real threat.”
He concluded, “I think that sooner or later the separatists will make their presence felt. And quite loudly.”
The actual strength of the rebel forces loyal to Umarov is disputed.
A few months ago, Russian deputy interior minister Arkady Yedelev estimated that there were 37 “bandit groups” active in Chechnya, totalling around 450 men. President Kadyrov said that only a few dozen fighters remained in the hills and promised “to destroy them within the next few months”.
Whether or not the recent increase in fighting is merely a short-lived summer campaign, it does suggest that such claims are over-confident and that the rebels still possess the strength to keep the security forces in Chechnya – numbering some 20,000 men – on a state of alert.
By Umalt Dudayev in Grozny (CRS No. 400, 12-July-07)