Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Moscow Steps Up 'War on Terrorism'

Following the terrorist outrages in America, Russia looks set to step up its operations against Chechen civilians.
By Marina Rennau

Moscow may view the US declaration of war on terrorism as an opportunity to escalate its military campaign in Chechnya.

Over recent weeks, the Russian army has intensified its activity in the north-east of the country in response to a renewed Chechen offensive. The fear is that Moscow's forces will exploit events in America to step up its operations, especially against civilian centres.

Russian forces often conduct "mop up" operations in towns and villages near to the scene of rebel attacks, but even Moscow has admitted that "violations and abuses" have taken place during these actions over the past couple of weeks.

"We were forced into a local school," said the victim of one such operation in the north eastern village of Alleroy in August. " Most of us were brutally beaten up. Many suffered severe injuries."

The latest reports follow Russian retaliation for hard-hitting attacks by rebel forces. President Vladimir Putin told German television ARD on September 21 that the army had "destroyed major terrorist bases", after assaults on the cities of Gudermes and Argun in the north-east, just 50 km from the capital Grozny.

Moscow insists the two towns are now under Russian control, but these claims seem rather optimistic. The insurgents say their ranks have been swelled and their morale is high, despute taking heavy losses.

That rebels are reported to have mounted several dozen attacks on Russian armoured columns and encampments in Grozny and Argun in the last week suggests that Chechen fighters can still move around enemy-controlled territory with ease. All these factors indicate that the war is far from over.

The worry for human rights activists is that Russia, emboldened by US determination to crush world terrorism, may redouble its efforts to defeat the rebels and terrorise innocent Chechen civilians in the process.

Back in July the president of the Council of Europe's parliamentary assembly, Lord Russell-Johnston, warned there was "mounting evidence of a rapidly deteriorating human rights situation in Chechnya", referring specifically to "mop-up" operations conducted in Assinovskaya and Sernovodsk.

Recent actions against Grozny, Gudermes, Argun and Khankala have resulted in yet more cause for concern. Hundreds of civilians are said to have been detained and sent to "filtration" camps, where combatants are supposedly separated from civilians. Human rights activists say the centres are effectively concentration camps.

Russian officials admitted that there had been "certain violations and abuses" during an 11-day-long operation in Alleroy, near Gudermes. Moreover, for the first time during the second Chechen war, Moscow has revealed that 15 soldiers have been convicted of crimes against civilians in December 1999 and February 2000. The list, identifying the convicts only by their initials and military rank, appeared in Rossijskaya Gazeta on September 20.

Yet this is a rare admission that civilians are being terrorised by Russian troops. Moscow makes it almost impossible for journalists, human rights campaigners and other international observers to report on Chechnya or to monitor the situation there. Reporters who seek to cover the war independently risk arrest, or worse.

Washington's plan to send its Russian ambassador to Chechnya at the beginning of September "surprised" Putin's special representative for human rights there, Vladimir Kalamanov, who said such a visit was wholly unnecessary.

He stressed an OSCE and Council of Europe were already working in the region on a permanent basis and that Russian policy was "fully open and transparent". Yet a report by the French news agency, Agence France Press, says the Russian authorities have prevented the OSCE mission there from carrying out its activities and that a recent Council of Europe monitoring visit had been cancelled because of "security concerns".

Meanwhile, Moscow's propaganda machinery is making the most of the tragic events in the US. Russian officials are saying Chechens are suspected of involvement and the Interfax news agency has reported that Osama Bin Laden, America's prime suspect for the atrocities, is assumed to be sheltering in the Chechen highlands.

By presenting the Chechen resistance as a gang of bandits and terrorists, and itself as a fighter against international terrorism, Russia hopes the West and Washington will stop criticising its actions in Chechnya. "It seems that the West is only now starting to see what Russia is up against in Chechnya," said the Russian military paper Krasnaya Zvezda. Whether the West will fall for this tactic remains to be seen.

Marina Rennau is IWPR project coordinator in Tbilisi