A spreading ulcer

Published : Jul 30, 2004 00:00 IST

Ingush and Chechen rebels target Russian security forces, for the first time taking the Chechen war into the neighbouring province of Ingushetia.

in Moscow

A DARING raid on June 21 carried the Chechen war into the neighbouring province of Ingushetia. The raids, carried out by over 200 Ingush and Chechen fighters, left 98 people dead and 104 injured and were specifically targeted at the Russian security forces in the province, among whom 67 were killed. The raid has threatened Russia's Caucasus with instability and massive disaffection, a development that could prove rather costly for Moscow.

The rebel fighters, in a well-coordinated raid, distinctly targeted government and security installations situated in Nazran, Ingushetia's largest city, and in the surrounding areas. The targets included the Interior Ministry headquarters and the base of the FSB [Russia's Secret Service] Border Guards Unit in Nazran and local arms depots, municipal police headquarters and security installations in Karabulak and Sleptovskaya, to the northeast of Nazran.

The damage done to Russia's morale is of great magnitude. The raids resulted in the death of Abukar Kostoev, Ingushetia's acting Interior Minister, Mukharbek Buzurtanov, Nazran city's Chief Prosecutor, Belan Oziev, the district's Chief Prosecutor, and Timur Detagazov, Ingushetia's investigator for major criminal cases. The coordinated attacks by the guerillas resulted in heavy casualties: among the dead were 29 police officers, 19 federal soldiers, 10 FSB personnel and five prosecutors from the province. The remaining deaths were civilian.

This is the first instance of Chechen war spilling into Ingushetia and is also the first instance of Ingush fighters joining up with the Chechens against Russia. Independent defence analyst Pavel Felgenhauer recently wrote in Novaya Gazeta that the participation of a large number of ethnic Ingush along with a band of Chechen rebels was one of the "most unexpected features" of the guerilla raids. He felt that the level of coordination among the rebels of various ethnic groups, the synchronisation of their attacks, and their ability to react flexibly to unpredictable changes in the tactical situation were significant. "Until now the Ingush had not taken part in any massive separatist movement; their first serious baptism by fire came only last week," wrote Felgenhauer. He further elaborated: "During the great Caucasian war in the 19th century, the Ingush were on Russia's side. Only Josif Stalin united the Ingush people with the Chechens by means of his mass deportations in 1944 and now the present Russian government has managed, by introducing its death squads into Ingushetia, to transform its former loyal allies into dangerous enemies."

The current disillusionment and growing disaffection in Muslim dominated Ingushetia against Moscow is a fact that has been highlighted by many analysts. They feel that it is the Kremlin's hardline policies in the state coupled with the policies of Murat Zyazikov, the province's President, which have resulted in many police raids and successive "disappearances" of young men that has caused widespread disaffection.

The rebel operation was carried out with uncanny precision and considerable planning. The rebels commenced the operation at 11 p.m. sharp. They were mostly dressed in police camouflage, and took over police checkpoints. They stopped cars, checked identity cards and executed on the spot transiting police officials, security officials and prosecutors. However, they let civilians and rank and file policemen pass. Next, they attacked the Interior Ministry headquarters where a gun-battle followed. Over the next two hours, the rebels raided the city police headquarters, a border guard base and an ammunition depot in Nazran. Elsewhere, they attacked a police commando base in the Ingush town of Karabulak and a law enforcement building in the settlement of Sleptovskaya. The rebels virtually controlled Nazran, the federal highway and some of the surrounding areas for the next four hours before they disappeared into thick jungle with very few casualties. It is significant that the rebels did not loot any banks or civilian establishments, or engage in rape and arson.

Reportedly, the rebels did not leave empty-handed, but took with them a sizable arsenal acquired when they raided the ammunition depot. An Associated Press report indicates that they acquired some 300 pistols, 322 submachine guns, six machine guns, 200 hand-held grenades and 68,000 rounds of cartridges.

As the attackers melted into the surrounding jungle, a livid President Putin ordered his military and law-enforcement chiefs to seek out and destroy the suspected Chechen rebels. In an emergency meeting, he told his chiefs: "You need to seek and destroy. Those who can be caught must be taken alive and tried in court." In televised remarks, he told Zyazikov: "Judging by what is going on here, the federal centre is not doing enough to defend the republic." He announced additional federal troops - at least one new regiment - for Ingushetia.

The raids have shattered Moscow's claims regarding "normalisation" in Chechnya and in the region. Meanwhile, security forces have launched a sweep of the region. Chechen refugees who have been living in Ingushetia have fled their camps in fear of reprisals. The security forces have found only five suspects despite detaining many for questioning.

The Kremlin today is faced with a major problem in the Caucasus. The entire region could spiral out of hand if not handled with imagination. Analysts fear that with Wahabi Islam wearing a fundamentalist face in the Caucasus and the Russian state following a ruthless policy in both Chechnya and Ingushetia, the disaffection could explode to violence. They also see in the June 21 incident a major change of policy on the part of the rebels - from hostage taking and suicide bombing to military engagement. Approximately one month ago, rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov gave a statement indicating a change of tactic to one of preparing military offences. Analysts feel that the planners of the operation seem to have learnt a lesson from the public ill will generated by the Nord Ost hostage-taking (Frontline, November 22, 2002).

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