Chechens Clash on the Net

Chechnya's rival leaders are waging a war of words in cyberspace

Chechens Clash on the Net

Chechnya's rival leaders are waging a war of words in cyberspace

Rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov has urged the international press to ignore any information released by "foreign Internet sites claiming to represent the official Chechen government".

The move came after various rebel websites reported on schisms in the Chechen leadership and accused top commanders of spying for the West.

And the adverse publicity has provided an unexpected windfall for the Russian propaganda machine at a time when the new administration in Washington is showing increasing sympathy for the rebel cause.

The first rumblings of discontent came in January when Chechen propaganda minister Movladi Udugov claimed that the elected rebel president was "torn between peace talks with the Russians and pressure from foreign mercenaries headed by Khattab and [Shamil] Basaev".

The comments were published on Udugov's two websites -- Kavkaz Centre and Nokhchichyo - which are reportedly operated from secret locations in Georgia.

The sites also published an interview with field commander Khamzat Gelaev who ruled out any possibility of peace talks and proposed that all the rebel leaders (himself included) should be tried by a people's court.

Meanwhile, Udugov has been conducting a smear campaign against Malik Saidullaev, a Chechen businessman based in Moscow. According to Kavkaz Centre, Saidullaev is a British agent codenamed "Pete" who has been sponsored by London to win the Chechen presidency.

Udugov said that the British government was eager to have "a puppet" in Grozny in order to further its own geopolitical goals. He went on to dismiss claims that Maskhadov's presidential mandate had expired in January, stating that, according to the Chechen constitution, he could remain in power for another year.

The Russian security services have been swift to fan the flames of dissent. Alexei Kruglov, a colonel in the Federal Security Service, said his agents were "checking" claims that Saidullaev was recruited in the 1990s by a British spy in Moscow.

But he added, "We suspect that Maskhadov is using Movladi Udugov's Internet propaganda machine to spread these accusations."

At the same time, pro-Chechen organisations based in London have added insult to injury by reporting that international Islamic groups are set to cut off financial support to the Chechen separatists in order to increase funding for Palestinian groups in the Middle East.

According to some commentators, this looming crisis has sparked growing suspicion amongst the Chechen leaders - particularly between traditional Islamists and extremist groups.

In late February, Gelaev accused the Wahhabi warlord Arbi Baraev of working for the FSB. He said, "His wedding celebrations in the village of Yermolovskaya were guarded by federal troops."

And other rebel sites have published calls by extremist Chechens for Maskhadov to be ousted - by force if necessary. Khattab described the president as a "vile jackal spreading lies" while Chechen Press carried rumours that Turpal Movsaev, head of the Chechen special forces, was planning to assassinate the rebel leader. The notorious Akhmadov brothers had allegedly been entrusted with the task.

Tensions reached boiling point in the run-up to the anniversary of the Chechen deportations in 1944. Aslan Maskhadov's calls for the "annihilation of the FSB and GRU execution units" were ignored by almost all Chechen information agencies.

The separatist leader responded to this indifference by accusing Khattab of waging war against the Israelis and Basaev of being an agent of the GRU.

He then stripped Gelaev of his military rank and called on the world press to ignore "propaganda" sites such as Kavkaz Centre. On March 16, the site was targeted by hackers who managed to interrupt public access but failed to shut it down completely.

Alexander Dzadziev is an independent journalist based in Vladikavkaz

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