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Who's the rebel now? Lines blur in Chechnya

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  • Who's the rebel now? Lines blur in Chechnya

    FEATURE-Who's the rebel now? Lines blur in Chechnya

    By Oliver Bullough

    GROZNY, Russia, March 23 (Reuters) - For Moscow, it is simple: Chechen
    rebels are terrorists and must be destroyed.

    But on the ground in Chechnya, government supporters and rebels are
    sometimes hard to tell apart.

    Rebels who change sides are absorbed into the pro-Russian government's
    ranks without question. Many do not demand independence, while the
    government is increasingly assertive towards Moscow.

    Moscow's bearded footsoldiers in the region, with their mismatched
    uniforms, Kalashnikovs, and habit of firing volleys of gunfire as
    wedding parties drive past not only look like the people who defeated
    Russia in 1996 -- they are the same people.

    In Argun, just east of the regional capital Grozny, one 25-year-old
    member of the thousands-strong Security Service said most of his
    comrades were rebels who had changed sides.

    "We nearly all were," he said, as he leaned against a wall and
    chain-smoked. "I only changed sides three months ago, before that I
    was up in the hills, dodging the federals."

    Higher rank personnel are crossing over as well.

    Top rebel Magomed Khambiyev surrendered this month, faces no criminal
    charges and has asked to join Moscow's side. Officials in Chechnya say
    they would welcome him.

    Pro-Moscow Chechen President Akhmad Kadyrov's son Ramzan -- the
    region's second most powerful man as head of the Security Service --
    said he wanted rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov to come and join the
    government as well.

    "He is a good military man, let him train our soldiers," said the
    burly 27-year-old in his home village of Tsenteroi in the foothills of
    the Caucasus mountains.


    President Vladimir Putin vows to destroy the "terrorist" Maskhadov,
    and refuses to negotiate with him. His peace plan centred around a
    referendum last year to anchor Chechnya in Russia and internationally
    criticised elections won by Kadyrov.

    Maskhadov spearheaded the drive that forced Moscow first to the
    negotiating table and then to grant Chechnya de facto independence in
    1997, but Ramzan Kadyrov spoke highly of the former Soviet colonel.

    "Maskhadov is an educated man...We need such people and it's right to
    make use of them. He should not be president, but he should be
    military commander," he told reporters.

    Politically, the two sides are closer than Putin says. Rebels who ran
    Chechnya until Putin sent troops back in 1999 now speak vaguely of
    compromise -- some form of autonomy within Russia perhaps, with
    current guerrillas invited to participate.

    Kadyrov, on the other hand, is making increasingly tough demands of

    Last month, he demanded Russia pay transit fees for the gas that
    crosses Chechen territory on its way to Georgia, Armenia and
    Azerbaijan, Russian newspapers reported.

    He wants control of the military campaign to be handed to his
    government, and his long-term demand that all revenues from Chechen
    oil should revert to Grozny is a major stumbling block in Moscow's
    attempts to define Chechnya's status.


    Hardline rebels, who have staged a string of suicide bombings in the
    Caucasus and Moscow, refuse to consider any compromise with
    Russia. But moderates take a line more conciliatory than Kadyrov's.

    "No one is talking about independence any more," top rebel envoy
    Akhmed Zakayev told Reuters in a recent interview in London, where he
    is in exile.

    Kadyrov says only former rebels have insight into rebel plans required
    to catch their former comrades-in-arms. But Zakayev says the presence
    of former separatists in Kadyrov's ranks has undermined Moscow's rule.

    "Money for our armed forces comes from Russia, it comes via Kadyrov's
    administration. There is not one minister, manager or village head who
    does not give us money," he said.

    "While the Kadyrov administration continues, we will never have
    trouble with our finances."

    03/22/04 21:03 ET