The Chechen mujahideen lost a prominent commander late last month; with the martyrdom of Arbi Alaa-Eddin Barayev on June 23 during heavy fighting in the village of Alkhan-Kala, about 15km southwest of the Chechen capital, Johar-Gala (Grozny).
Chechen sources reported that Barayev was martyred towards the end of 8 days of heavy fighting, while commanding a group of about 50 mujahideen defending Alkhan-Kala and nearby villages from a strong Russian attack by special forces with armour, heavy artillery and aircraft. At least 17 other mujahideen were also martyred during the battle, and a similar number reportedly captured. At least 100 Russian soldiers were killed, and several armoured vehicles destroyed. After the Russians captured Alkhan-Kala, there were reports of widespread arrests, looting and killing of civilians.
The day after Barayev’s martyrdom, the mujahideen withdrew from the area and were unable to take his body with them. Russians discovered it and announced his death on national news on the evening of June 24. It was not the first time that Barayev’s death had been claimed by the military, but this time mujahideen sources confirmed the news the next day.
Barayev’s martyrdom was celebrated by the Russians and their local agents. Ahmed Kadyrov, the Chechen ‘civil administrator’ (head of the Russians’ proxy local government) publicly said that he hoped that Johar-Gala would now be safer for himself and other pro-Russian officials, who are presently based in Gudermes because Johar-Gala is so dangerous for them. Mujahideen under Barayev’s command are believed to have been responsible for a series of bomb-attacks in Johar-Gala, Gudermes and Argun in late June in which several Russian officers and senior pro-Russian Chechens were killed.
The Russians celebrated Barayev’s martyrdom as a success for their policy of targetting mujahideen commanders, announced in late January when president Vladimir Putin transferred responsibility for the war in Chechnya from the defence ministry to the Federal Security Service (FSB). Aslan Maskhadov, Shamil Basayev, Khattab, Arbi Barayev and Ruslan Gelayev were mentioned specifically; last month, they finally succeeded in killing one of them.
The loss of Barayev is unlikely, however, to have any significant effect on the mujahideen’s high level of activity at this time of year, both because of their high morale and because they are organized in small, independent and highly mobile units.
Operations early this month included the bombing of a Russian military shop in Khasav-Yurt on July 3, in which 5 soldiers were killed and 5 injured, including four officers. The previous day, mujahideen attacks on Russian troops had been reported from the Nojai-Yurt, Vedeno and Shali regions of the country. Three Russian armoured vehicles were destroyed and at least 10 soldiers killed when a military convoy was attacked near Belgatoi by mujahideen armed with machine-guns and grenade-launchers.
The Russians are trying to maintain the pretence that they control the whole of the country and are re-establishing civilian rule, but the reality is that Chechnya remains at war, with the mujahideen able to strike at will, where and when they please. The Russians’ inability even to secure the capital, Johar-Gala, is particularly galling for them; they were seriously embarrassed in May when the mujahideen conducted a week of operations in Argun and other towns around Johar-Gala to coincide with the arrival of a European Union delegation to assess the situation in the country.
Russian attempts to secure their rule are marked, as usual, by gross abuses of human rights. Chechen civilians face arrest, killing, looting and other reprisals whenever they are suspected of supporting the mujahideen. Such has been Chechen anger and resentment at Russian policies that even Kadyrov, the Russian’s main man in Chechnya, called on July 9 for an investigation into Russian crimes against civilians. His call came after a military ‘zachistki’ (cleansing) operation against Sernovodsk and Assinovskaya, two villages west of Johar-Gala, which were reportedly particularly brutal. More than a thousand men were rounded up for the notorious ‘filtration’ camps, where many were beaten, tortured or attacked by vicious dogs. Houses were destroyed and property was looted.
Kadyrov’s call is little more than an attempt to ingratiate himself with the Chechens; he knows better than anyone that such brutal operations are ordered by his own bosses, Russia’s generals in Chechnya and their political masters in Moscow.
He must be looking, however, to his own position. Another Chechen puppet, Beslan Gantemirov, was promoted to the post of chief federal inspector on the staff of Viktor Kazantsev, presidential envoy to South Russia, last month, after he resigned as mayor of Johar-Gala. His new duties include drafting a new constitution for occupied Chechnya and helping to organize elections to a new Chechen parliament. The Russians hope to hold elections for a new Chechen leader next year.