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Muslim Volunteers Swell Chechen Forces

Russians tighten up security in the Chechen lowlands as rebel forces announce the start of the spring campaign
By IWPR

Chechen leaders say they have recruited hundreds of Islamic volunteers from abroad in preparation for a major offensive on the "occupied territories" this month.


President Aslan Maskhadov has even set a date - May 20 - for the official start of the spring campaign which will target the captured towns of Shali, Gudermes and Argun as well as the shattered capital, Grozny.


Last week, field commander Shamil Basaev announced that the guerrillas' ranks had been swelled by 120 Dagestani Wahhabites while 150 volunteers from Afghanistan, equipped with Stinger surface-to-air missiles, recently arrived in Nozhai-Yurt.


Meanwhile, Russian military intelligence has reported that around 400 "foreign mujahideen", including fighters from Afghanistan, have massed in secret bases on the Georgian border.


Tbilisi hotly denies the accusations. Professor Levan Aleksidze, government spokesman on international affairs, said, "Georgia respects Russian territorial integrity and will not allow its territory to be used for outlawed activities against another state."


But, despite the protests, the stream of fresh volunteers apparently continues unabated. FSB sources estimate the main rebel force, commanded by Maskhadov, Basaev and Emir Khattab, now totals around 3,000 men whilst independent commanders such as Ruslan Gelaev can field another 800 fighters.


In the lowlands, the Russian military is clearly worried by the build-up in rebel troops. Last week, local militia units were being disarmed. Pro-Russian Chechens led by the notorious Yamadaev brothers, who surrendered Gudermes to the Russians last December, have already relinquished an impressive arsenal of anti-tank rockets, 80mm mortars, machine-guns and grenade launchers.


Abroad, the federal intelligence services are devoting strenuous efforts to stemming the flow of Muslim fighters. The Islamic volunteers serve a dual purpose - not only do they provide desperately needed combat skills, they also help to boost the Chechens' flagging morale.


International organisations suspected of taking part in the recruitment drive have come under close surveillance. The main players are thought to be Tabligi Dzhamaat which hires mercenaries with combat experience in Bosnia and Afghanistan; the Libyan extremist organisation Asbat al-Ansar, the radical wing of the Yemen's Islakh movement and the international terrorist Osama bin Laden.


Moscow also believes logistical support has been provided by Azerbaijan's Boz-Gurt (Grey Wolves) movement. Colonel Rashid Isaev, of the Dagestani interior ministry, said over 100 Chechen fighters were currently recovering from their wounds in Baku hospitals.


Most worrying for the Russians is the growing number of Slavs appearing in the Chechen ranks, mainly Ukrainian nationalists and disaffected Russian soldiers who have deserted from the federal forces.


Foreign recruits have been an integral part of the rebel forces since the beginning of the war. Over the past eight months, Russian security services say they have arrested a total of 1,500 volunteers attempting to make their way to Chechnya through the Ukraine.


The most notorious Islamic crusader in Chechnya is the 30-year-old Ibn-ul-Khattab, who founded the so-called Islamic Regiment during the 1994-1996 war. Born in Jordan, where there is an extensive Chechen diaspora, Khattab fought in Afghanistan and Tajikistan for eight years before making his way to the Caucasus.


Believing himself to be untouchable, Khattab rose to prominence in April 1996, when he ambushed a Russian convoy, killing 223 soldiers and 26 senior officers near the village of Shatoi. He has since survived a heavy-calibre bullet wound to the stomach, a landmine explosion and a grenade which detonated in his hand.


The Jordanian, who carries the rank of general, films all his operations in gory detail - much of the footage is widely available on the Internet.


Khattab's recruits hail from a wide range of different backgrounds. Masood Al-Benin, born of a French mother and an African father, was studying in London for an MA when he joined the Islamic movement. Al-Benin was shot together with a Bosnian and an Algerian mercenary at a checkpoint near Shatoi in April.


Many have extensive combat experience. Abu Ubaidah, 26, from Yemen, fought in Bosnia in 1995 and Afghanistan before taking part in the Dagestan incursions of August 1999. He was killed by a sniper in Khartoni earlier this year.


But others are taught basic skills when they arrive in Chechnya before being sent straight into frontline positions. Khallad Al-Madani, 28, from Saudi Arabia, arrived in Chechnya in October 1999 with no previous military training. Four months later, he was killed in a bombing raid on Serzhen-Yurt.


According to an international publication entitled "Jihad in Chechnya", the volunteers are fighting "because the Muslim governments have failed to direct their power and defence budgets to the cause in Chechnya. They are not fighting for money. In fact, many of these volunteers are actually from very wealthy backgrounds, from Field Commander Khattab down to some of those killed recently."


The Islamic regiments, it says, are financed by contributions from abroad. Russia's FSB claimed on Friday that it had intercepted a radio message from the international Islamic organisation Al-Kharamein announcing the imminent arrival in Chechnya of "RPGs and ammunition, machine-guns, Kalashnikov assault rifles, sniper's rifles, 1,000 shells and 500 bullet-proof jackets."


Alexander Voronin is a correspondent for Moskovsky Komsomolets


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