The Caucasus: Russia 'free to fight own campaign'
By Lutz Kleveman in Tbilisi

Daily Telegraph
(Filed: 25/09/2001)

FEARS of a new round of wars have risen in the volatile Caucasus region amid signs that Russia is poised to pursue its own war against Islamic terrorists and governments which harbour them.

With America needing Russia's help in its worldwide anti-terrorist campaign, the suspicion is widespread in the Caucasus that Washington has given Moscow carte blanche for an intensified crackdown on Chechen separatists.

Following the attacks in the United States two weeks ago, the Russian government has shown wide-ranging support for a US-led international anti-terrorist campaign.

Russia's President Putin has accepted that the Central Asian republics of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, formerly parts of the Soviet Union, open their air bases to American troops. Equally unthinkable during the Cold War, terrorism experts in the Russian Federal Security Bureau (FSB) are closely co-operating with American FBI agents.

Mr Putin has repeatedly compared the attacks in New York City with the bombings of apartment buildings in Moscow in mid-1999 in which hundreds died.

Blaming the bombings on Chechen terrorists, the Russian government has led a large-scale military campaign against them. The brutal conflict has killed tens of thousands and some 200,000 refugees have fled to the neighbouring Russian republic of Ingushetia and independent Georgia.

Now many in the region suspect the campaign will be stepped up. In particular, the government of independent Georgia fears Russian attacks after prominent politicians in Moscow called for military action against the country. Moscow accuses Georgia of allowing Chechen fighters to stay and train on its territory.

Moscow claims that among the refugees are many fighters. The Russian government's negotiator in Chechnya, Boris Nemtsov, recently said on television: "We all know that there are terrorists on Georgian territory and if [the Georgian President] Shevardnadze does not agree to deliver them to Russian authorities, Russia will have to resort to military action on Georgian territory."

Mr Nemtsov went on to say that this time America, with its involvement in anti-terrorist activities, could not hold Russia back.

Newspapers have issued warnings of an imminent confrontation. A senior foreign ministry official said: "We are very worried about a Russian military invasion of our country, which they would label as an anti-terrorist action.

"Moscow is hoping the West would then look the other way." He added that the Russian public had for months been brainwashed with anti-Georgian propaganda.

A senior American diplomat in the region yesterday stated that the US would defend Georgia's territorial integrity against potential Russian incursions.

He denied that there had been any quid pro quo between Washington and Moscow: "American policy is not to say to the Russians 'now you do what you like with the Chechens and we look the other way'. We have not given anybody any carte blanche."

Relations between the countries have soured since Georgia became independent after the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991.

Russia, which still keeps several thousand troops in Georgia, is believed to have sponsored two assassination attempts on President Eduard Shevardnadse, as well as secessionist movements in the bloody conflicts over the Georgian provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

The Chechen fighters are believed to hide in Pankisi Valley, a mountainous area from where they enter Chechnya for raids. Georgian authorities admit that they have lost control over Pankisi, an area populated by the Chechens' ethnic kin, the Kists.

In the recent past, local bandits have kidnapped dozens of foreigners. The International Red Cross suspended help for the 6,000 Chechen refugees in the valley after two nurses were abducted in August last year.

Since the attacks in America, Russia has conspicuously wooed its traditional ally in the Caucasus, Georgia's southern neighbour Armenia. The Russian military still maintains several large bases in Armenia, causing much anxiety in Georgia.

All the while the war in Chechnya continues, with Chechen fighters every week killing several Russian troops who in turn are accused of torturing civilians. Few of the 200,000 Chechen refugees in neighbouring Ingushetia heed calls by Moscow to return home, and are instead preparing for a third winter in makeshift camps.

"They are afraid of the Russian forces, especially the mercenaries, who violate human rights all the time. Now the soldiers might think they can get away with it even more easily," said a Western aid worker in Ingushetia.