The events in Chechnya of late 2000 and early 2001 reveal the grim dynamics of a republic7 entrenched in a bloody guerrilla war and suggest neither a quick resolution of the conflict, nor a reduction in abuses committed by both sides. Between November 2000 and April 2001, Chechen rebel forces operated actively throughout Chechnya, engaging in armed clashes with federal troops, carrying out bomb attacks on federal positions, assassinating Chechens seen as cooperating with the Russian government, and kidnapping a foreign aid worker. Russian forces responded to this rebel activity with the occasional use of heavy weaponry and frequent large-scale and targeted sweep operations, during which numerous civilians were killed, tortured, ill-treated, and "disappeared."
From November 2000 to April 2001, armed clashes, ambushes, and bomb attacks occurred on an almost daily basis, and media, quoting military and Chechen sources, frequently reported multiple attacks on one single day.8 For example, on December 5, the Russian Military News Agency reported that rebel forces had carried out twenty-six attacks on army and police units within the previous twenty-four hours. The agency quoted a spokesman for the Russian forces as saying that Russian troops had effected nine strikes on rebel formations in that period.9 The Associated Press, quoting members of the Chechen administration, reported twenty-seven attacks within twenty-four hours on December 16, twenty-five attacks on January 10, and nineteen attacks on January 20.10 In mid-February, the Military News Agency, quoting military officials, reported 111 attacks on positions of Russian army and police units within one week. It said seventy-one of the attacks occurred in Grozny.11 Itar-Tass, also quoting military officials, reported forty-six attacks on February 23.12 Interfax news agency, once again quoting military officials, reported that throughout the course of one week in mid-March Russian positions came under attack almost 200 times.13
Reported casualty rates among Russian soldiers during those months ranged between fifty and eighty soldiers and police officers per month. As far as Human Rights Watch has been able to establish, media, quoting Russian military officials or sources in the Chechen administration, reported the deaths of at least sixty-three soldiers or police officers in November 2000; sixty-six in December; fifty-eight in January 2001; seventy-two in February; eighty-three in March; and more than sixty-five in April.14 Reliable figures on the number of casualties among rebel fighters and civilians are unavailable.
During late 2000 and early 2001, gunmen widely presumed to belong to Chechen rebel forces assassinated, or attempted to assassinate, numerous Chechens who cooperated with the Russian government. Chechen rebel forces issued statements at various times demanding that Chechens working in the administration leave their posts or "face the consequences." In November 2000, Associated Press reported that rebel fighters had shown a copy of a letter that was to be delivered to Chechens working in local administrations. According to the news report, the letter stated: "National traitors are responsible for our difficulties. Those who work for the occupants, leave your posts within 24 hours. This is the last warning."15 In a letter to Human Rights Watch, Aslan Maskhadov, the leader of the Chechen rebels and president of the self-proclaimed Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, denied issuing an order to assassinate Chechens who voluntarily cooperate with the Russian government. He stated, however, that he considered such Chechens to be guilty of treason and did not rule out that some of his fighters may have committed some "isolated abuses" against them, "perhaps in the heat of the battle or from the desire to seek vengeance that stems from rage and loss."16 Despite these denials of involvement in the killings of civilian administrators, it is widely believed that rebel forces have been behind many of the killings.
Between November 2000 and April 2001, gunmen assassinated the mayors of three villages, as well as four deputy heads of administration, including the deputy head of the administration of Chechnya.17 They also carried out eight attempts on the lives of heads of administration, including the head of the Chechen administration, Akhmad Kadyrov, and Gudermes mayor Malika Gazimieva. In December 2000, gunmen beat I. Idrisov, the head of administration of Gekhi, only to murder him six months later. Gunmen also assassinated three imams (Muslim religious leaders) and reportedly kidnapped the chair of the Committee for Religious Affairs of Chechnya, Visrudi Shirdiev.18 They also killed the head of the Council of Elders of Argun and several lower-ranking employees of the administration of Chechnya in Urus-Martan and Alkhan-Kala.
On January 9, 2001, a group of armed and masked men kidnapped Kenneth Gluck, a foreign aid worker for the international medical relief organization Médecins sans Frontières (MSF). The men stopped the humanitarian convoy outside the town of Starye Atagi, about twenty kilometers south of Grozny, forced Gluck to switch cars, and drove off. The attack happened in broad daylight in a town that Russian forces claimed to have controlled since late January 2000. Gluck was held hostage in or near Starye Atagi for three weeks, and then released. His captors gave Gluck a letter signed by rebel leader Shamil Basaev containing an apology: according to the letter, which was later posted on a pro-rebel website, the kidnap had been a "mistake."19
Russian troops responded to the attacks against its forces and rebel murders of civilians with large-scale and targeted sweep operations, and sporadically with heavy arms. During sweep operations, Russian troops continued to perpetrate violations of human rights that included numerous extrajudicial executions, "disappearances," torture and ill-treatment, arbitrary detentions, destruction of civilian property, and extortion. For example:
· On November 26, Russian troops conducted a sweep operation on the central market in Grozny in response to several attacks on Russian soldiers there. The troops destroyed the market and confiscated goods from shops. They also detained several people, including at least two men who subsequently "disappeared."20
· Following the kidnap of MSF worker Kenneth Gluck on January 9, 2001, Russian troops conducted a sweep operation in Starye and Novye Atagi during which at least twenty-one Chechens were detained. Three of the detainees subsequently "disappeared" and the bodies of two others turned up twelve days later at a local rock quarry.21 Seven villagers suffered gunshot wounds when soldiers opened fire on a group of women who tried to prevent the detention of a disabled man. One of the women died on the spot.22
· In mid-March, troops conducted a sweep in Argun. Eleven of those detained subsequently "disappeared." The bodies of four men turned up several weeks later in a village not far from Argun. All four men had been shot through the head.23
Against the background of this highly volatile security situation in Chechnya, President Vladimir Putin ordered the partial withdrawal of troops on January 22, 2001. A Russian news agency quoted President Putin as saying that eventually the permanent troops stationed in Chechnya would consist of only a 15,000-man Defense Ministry division (the 42nd Motorized Division) and 7,000 troops and police from the Interior Ministry.24 The president, however, did not provide any schedule for the withdrawal. A few weeks later, Valerii Manilov, first deputy chief of Russia's general staff, told Interfax news agency that the troop presence in Chechnya would, for the moment, be reduced to approximately 50,000 men.25
Dwindling domestic support for the military campaign in Chechnya appeared to be a key reason for the withdrawal plan. Opinion polls conducted throughout 2000 and in early 2001 showed a sharp decline in public support for the operation in Chechnya. For example, according to figures published by VTsIOM (All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion, a leading social research center in Moscow) in early March 2001, only 21 percent of the Russian population believed the war in Chechnya could be completed successfully (down from 45 percent in December 1999) whereas 35 percent believed the conflict would become drawn out and could spill over into other regions. VTsIOM's polls also showed that, after September 2000 the majority of the Russian population preferred peace talks to continued military action in Chechnya.26
In early 2001, around 80,000 troops from a variety of ministries were based in Chechnya.27 The command center set up for the Chechnya operation, called the United Group of Forces (in Russian, Obedinennaia gruppirovka voisk), coordinated the operations of these troops. The main Russian military base in Chechnya was located near the village of Khankala, a few kilometers east of Grozny.
On February 15, 2001, Manilov announced that a plan and schedule for withdrawing excess troops had been sent to the relevant officials for implementation.28 He provided few details but emphasized that the withdrawal would be gradual.29 In subsequent weeks, Interfax news agency reported more details of the plan, quoting unnamed military officials, who said the reduction would primarily affect the Ministry of Defense troops. 30 The number of Interior Ministry troops and police would remain "almost unchanged" while the Federal Security Service grouping was to be reinforced. The same sources were further quoted as saying that the Ministry of Defense troops that did not belong to the North Caucasus Military District were to be withdrawn first of all.31
In mid-March, Russian television started broadcasting a series of departure ceremonies as army units started to leave Chechnya. On March 13, the first unit, a motor-rifle brigade from the Siberian Military District, left Chechnya. The departure of units of the Moscow Military District began on March 20, and during the next two-and-a-half weeks 1,200 troops left Chechnya.32 In mid-April, the first airborne troops, a 300-man paratrooper battalion of the 31st Airborne Brigade, were withdrawn.
As the withdrawal of troops continued, however, Russian officials seemed to revise their initial plan. In mid-April, during a visit to Khankala military base in Chechnya, President Putin stated that Russia was currently only withdrawing "excessive units." According to Putin, "The federal military component will be reduced as appropriate conditions are created."33
In early May 2001, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov announced that his ministry had ended the withdrawal of its troops from Chechnya. According to Ivanov, about 5,000 servicemen-25,000 troops short of the target announced by Valerii Manilov three months earlier and only about 5 percent of all Russian troops in the region-had left Chechnya.34 Ivanov added that the Ministry of Defense had no plans for further withdrawals.
Only about one month after Ivanov announced the early end to the troop reduction, the Russian Interior Ministry said it considered dispatching additional soldiers to the republic. On June 4, Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov told the press that he wanted to send another 1,000 to 1,500 soldiers to Grozny to reinforce a 6,500-man Ministry of Interior operational brigade there.35
In November 2001, military officials announced that most Russian troops in Chechnya would be withdrawn in the spring of 2002. Gen. Gennadi Troshev, the commander of the North Caucasus Military District, told Interfax news agency that "all Russian federal armed units currently in Chechnya, except for those stationed there on a permanent basis, will be withdrawn from the republic by next spring."36
7 Chechnya is one of the constituent republics of the Russian Federation and is known officially as the Republic of Chechnya. During the years of defacto independence between August 1996 and late 1999, the Chechen leadership referred to Chechnya as the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria.
It is difficult to assess the reliability of these figures. On the one hand, the Russian and Chechen governments are eager to convince the public that the situation in Chechnya is normalizing. They therefore have a vested interest in understating the frequency of armed clashes and attacks. On the other hand, military officials may have a vested interest in overstating the number of clashes and attacks to justify their continuing presence in Chechnya. Official figures published by the Russian federal authorities are also problematic: those regarding casualties rates among Russian soldiers are widely believed to be significantly understated, those on rebel losses overstated.
10 "Russian soldiers killed in Chechnya," Associated Press, December 16, 2000; "Chechen rebels kill 19 Russian soldiers," Associated Press, January 10, 2001; Yuri Bagrov, "Five Russian Servicemen Die," Associated Press, January 20, 2001.
14 These figures are based on press reports and are by no means exhaustive. The count includes deaths of military servicemen, members of special police forces, FSB personnel, and Chechen police officers that were reported to Western and Russian news agencies by spokespersons of the Russian federal forces or members of the administration of Chechnya. No use was made of figures provided by spokespersons of the Chechen rebels.
16 Letter from Aslan Maskhadov to Holly Cartner, then executive director of the Europe and Central Asia Division of Human Rights Watch, dated May 28, 2001. Human Rights Watch also met with Ilias Akhmadov, the foreign minister of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, on April 3, 2001. He also denied any involvement by Chechen forces under Maskhadov's command in the killings of Chechens who cooperate with the Russian government.
17 Yusha Tsuev, the head of administration of Alkhan-Kala was killed on November 9, 2000; Sharami Dudagov, the head of administration of Mesker-Yurt was killed on November 17, 2000, as was his deputy, Khasmagomed Tsumtsaev; Adam Kasumov, deputy head of administration of the Kurchaloi district was killed on January 25, 2001; L. Timirgeriev, the head of administration of Agish-Batai, was killed on February 14, 2001; Larisa Movsarova, deputy head of the administration of Kulary was killed on April 8, 2001; Adam Deniev, first deputy head of the administration of Chechnya was killed on April 13, 2001.
18 Imam Kh. Adaev from Gudermes was killed on November 20, 2000; Imam Khasmagomed Umalatov from Urus-Martan was killed on January 7, 2001; and Imam Magomed Khasuev from Germenchuk was killed on January 9, 2001. Shirdiev "disappeared" in mid-February 2001. He resurfaced a week later under unclear circumstances with signs of beatings. He had been held in a basement. "Missing Chechen Official Turns Up," Interfax news agency, cited in BBC Monitoring, February 22, 2001.
19 The letter was posted on www.kavkaz.org/news/2001/03/12/news1/htm , accessed November 29, 2001.
20 For the "disappearance" of Jabrail Aslakhanov, see: Human Rights Watch, "The `Dirty War' in Chechnya: Forced Disappearances, Torture, and Summary Executions," A Human Rights Watch Report, vol.13, no.1(D), March 2001.
26 www.polit.ru:8083/documents/438733.html, accessed November 29, 2001.
27 About 50 percent of these troops belonged to the Ministry of Defense. The rest consisted of Ministry of Interior troops, security agents, special forces, and police. "Russia to Start Withdrawing Troops from Chechnya in March," Associated Press, March 8, 2001.
31 The United Forces Group, as Russia's forces in Chechnya are formally called, are made up mainly of Ministry of Defense forces, interior and police troops of the Ministry of Internal Affairs Forces, and Federal Security Service troops. They all function under one command system.
34 Ivanov was unclear about the exact figure. He said that "nearly 5,000 servicemen, even more than that" had been withdrawn from Chechnya." "Russian defense minister says 5000 troops pulled out of Chechnya," Russia TV, cited in BBC Monitoring, May 4, 2001.