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Russians' Conflict With Chechens Reignites

July 30, 2002|MAURA REYNOLDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — Open warfare flared in the mountains of Russia's rebellious republic of Chechnya on Monday as helicopter gunships chased down a band of rebels holed up in a gorge near the Georgian border. The battle appeared to be the first major firefight in the region since last year.

Russia and Georgia traded accusations over the cause and conduct of the fighting. Russia blamed Georgia for permitting the fighters to cross into Chechnya; Georgia accused a Russian gunship of violating its airspace and strafing its territory.

Meanwhile, the United Nations announced that it was suspending relief efforts in Chechnya after the kidnapping of a Russian aid worker. U.N. spokeswoman Viktoria Zotikova said Nina Davidovich, director of the Russian nongovernmental organization Druzhba, had been missing since last Tuesday.

The mountain battle began Saturday after 60 rebels affiliated with warlord Ruslan Gelayev entered Chechnya from bases in Georgia's lawless Pankisi Gorge, Russia said. Russian officials claimed that the fighters had been surrounded.

At least seven Russian servicemen and nine rebels died in the fighting, Russian authorities said. Such officials, however, often understate their losses and exaggerate rebel casualties.

Shalva Londaridze, chief of the Georgian Border Guards press service, insisted that no border crossings were detected either by Georgian border guards or by monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, who are keeping an eye on the tense region. He said the fighters engaging the Russians were based in Chechnya near the mountain village of Itum-Kale.

"A border crossing by a group of Chechen fighters from Georgia to Russia simply did not take place," Londaridze said by telephone from the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. "Even the OSCE is positive about it."

Sergei Yastrzhembsky, one of Russian President Vladimir V. Putin's top advisors on Chechnya, accused Georgian officials of telling "elementary lies." And Defense Minister Sergei B. Ivanov said: "We can see perfectly well that large gangs of terrorists remain on the territory of Georgia. Georgia as a state cannot do anything about them.... In order to find an ultimate solution to the problem, I personally do not see any other solution ... except using the Russian armed forces. Commando units, first and foremost."

Some Russian officials accused Georgian border guards of accepting bribes to let the rebels cross. Pressing the point, Russian officers paraded two captured rebel fighters before TV cameras.

"Indeed, the Georgians helped us," said a handcuffed prisoner whose name was given as Arsan Rakhimov. "They helped us on their own territory. I do not know what they did it for--for money or not. But the head of our group walked up to one of their border guards and talked to him.... They let us through freely."

The latest Chechen war began nearly three years ago when rebels staged an incursion into the neighboring republic of Dagestan, and after a series of apartment bombings blamed on the rebels prompted Russian forces to reenter Chechnya. Russia seized control of most of the territory by the spring of 2000 and declared victory.

The conflict has since become a war of attrition with the rebels, who set off mines and launch hit-and-run attacks nearly daily, killing about a dozen Russian servicemen a week. The official Russian death toll recently topped 4,000; unofficial counts are much higher.

Observers and some government officials noted that the current flare-up served all sides.

The escalation was useful "for the separatists, who need to show that they are still in fighting form, and for the [Russian] military, which is not hurrying to bring the anti-terrorist operation to an end," said Edi Isayev, spokesman for Russia's special envoy to Chechnya. "And it's useful for Georgia to again officially declare that there are no rebels on their territory."

Alexander Golts, a military analyst with the magazine Yezhenedelny Zhurnal, said the Russian brass needs to blame the Georgians for the presence of Chechen rebels despite repeated assurances that they have been wiped out.

"Both Georgian and Russian authorities do not want to look unprofessional and do not want to sound like they are good for nothing," he said. "They face a dilemma: either to tell the truth and look like complete idiots, or to cheerfully lie and blame everything on the neighbor. But whatever they say, the war goes on."

Russian officials assert that normal life is resuming for Chechen civilians, who are returning to their former homes. But aid workers say that Russian officials have been forcing refugees to return by discontinuing food deliveries and dismantling their tents.

*

Alexei V. Kuznetsov of The Times' Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.

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