A few days after Russia’s defence minister, Sergei Ivanov, had declared that Russian troops would never leave Chechnya, Chechen mujahideen killed 10 members of the Russian General Staff, comprising two generals and eight colonels, and at the same time attacked Gudermes, the republic’s second largest city. There were media reports that the mujahideen had seized Gudermes. Apart from the heavy losses that the army sustained, the Russians also suffered the humiliation of having to admit the gravity of the attack on Gudermes, after initially dismissing it as negligible. The twin attacks, which took place on September 17 and were widely reported, immediately discredited Moscow’s claims that the Russian army is in full control and that the ‘rebels’ have run out of steam. The Russians reacted to this setback in the usual way, launching indiscriminate attacks on civilians.
Both attacks were well organised. The generals and colonels were killed when the mujahideen fired a portable surface-to-air missile oat the MiG helicopter carrying them after it took off from Johar-Gala (Grozny), the Chechen capital, according to general Valeric Baranov, the Russian military commander in Chechnya. In a statement on RTR state television, he said: “Two generals and eight colonels of the General Staff were killed along with the crew”, adding that the officers were members of a General Staff team on an inspection tour in Chechnya. But although Baranov would not name the victims, the Interfax news agency reported that Major-General Anatoli Pozdnyakov had headed them.
The ground attack on Gudermes was even more daring. Mujahideen swooped at dawn on Russian outposts on the outskirts of the city, using automatic weapons and grenade-launchers. At least five Russian soldiers were killed in the dawn raid, which led to the capture of large areas of the city. At first Russian sources told reporters that there had been no raid at all, and Ahmad Kadyrov, head of the Moscow-appointed administration, said that the attackers numbered only 15, but RTR television cited unidentified Chechen officials to the effect that there had been up to four hundred attackers. General Baranov was forced to admit to reporters the same day that the raid had indeed taken place. “I just talked to the military commander in Gudermes and he was amazed to hear that bandits were attacking his city,” he said.
On the morning of the raid, a Kremlin spokesman said that two Russian checkpoints had come under fire briefly but no one was injured. Several hours later, however, the interior ministry was confirming that at least eight of its men had been killed and 10 wounded. It also put the size of the attacking force at about 300 men. The attack was certainly strong enough to enable a spokesman for president Aslan Maskhadov, the Chechens’ leader, to issue a statement claiming that the mujahideen had total control of Gudermes in southeast Chechnya.
The disarray in the Russian information and propaganda services in the face of the raid is typical. When, for instance, a bomb planted by the mujahideen exploded in the government headquarters in Johar-Gala on September 3, causing severe disruption of government business, there was similar disarray. Both attacks belie Russia’s claims that its army is in full control. Moscow’s attempts to suppress information that casts doubt on these claims is responsible for the resulting disarray.
But the explosion on September 3 had another damaging effect, confirming Ahmad Kadyrov’s publicly expressed belief that the Kremlin is unable to protect its puppet government in Chechnya. Kadyrov was in the government building with his cabinet ministers and local government officials when the explosion occurred, and was furious that the Russian army had once again failed to prevent the ‘rebels’ from infiltrating the administration’s headquarters in the capital city. But the Russian army clearly learned no lessons from the experience, as subsequent explosions in the capital showed. On September 16 three Russian soldiers were killed and 12 others were wounded when their truck was blown up by a remote-controlled landmine, and another mine explosion killed two servicemen the same day. On the following day the helicopter carrying the senior officers of the General Staff was shot down.
Faced with these humiliations, the Russian army lashed out as usual at the public in what have become known as “mopping-up operations”. Immediately after the attack on Gudermes on September 17, the Russian army arrested 400 of the city’s 40,000-strong population. Other civilian Chechens were arrested throughout the republic, and the “mopping-up operations” continue to gather pace. Those arrested are usually tortured and robbed, while their families are required to pay bribes for their release. The practice has led human-rights organisations to issue critical reports which have received vital confirmation from a well-informed and unexpected source: Kadyrov himself, the head of Moscow’s puppet government. On August 30 Kadyrov issued a scathing attack on the military for abusing civilians’ rights during security sweeps, while failing to reach resistance leaders. “They encircle a village, and they may take away things they like from the people and hit those who look askance,” he is quoted as saying in an AP report.
The Russian army, exploiting the world’s preoccupation with the “new US-led war”, is expanding its assaults on Chechen civilians and on the mujahideen. Moscow has already tried to tar the mujahideen with the brush of international terrorism, claiming that the ‘rebels’ are linked to Osama bin Ladin. President Vladimir Putin and other officials say that they are supported and funded by what they call a Muslim ‘international terrorist’, and vowing that they will never negotiate with ‘terrorists’. Defence minister Sergei Ivanov repeated these claims throughout September in a vain attempt to link the attacks on New York and Washington with the raids on Gudermes and Johar-Gala.
The brutal “mopping-up operations” will not succeed in cowing the Chechen people but they are bound to exact a heavy toll on civilian lives, and the silence of the Muslim world can only be described as reprehensible, at the very least.