Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said today that Russia intends to resettle tens of thousands of Chechens displaced by the conflict there in parts of Chechnya controlled by Russian troops--the strongest indication to date that Moscow intends to split the separatist southern region in two.
Putin made the comments as Russian troops battled Chechen militia forces along the Terek River, 25 miles north of Grozny, the Chechen capital. Chechen military sources reported heavy fighting as Russian troops pressed to control flat terrain north of the river and to drive the Chechens toward mountains to the south.
The Russian plan would effectively create two Chechnyas, with Russian troops apparently occupying the north and leaving the rest of the territory under separatist Chechen control. Although Moscow still considers Chechnya part of Russia, the region won virtual independence in 1996 after a two-year guerrilla war that has been described as one of President Boris Yeltsin's greatest setbacks.
The people to be resettled would be among the more than 100,000 Chechens who have fled Russian air and artillery attacks that have destroyed oil depots, power stations, roads and bridges, as well as houses, villages and farm land along Chechnya's eastern frontier.
Most of the refugees have ended up in the neighboring Russian region of Ingushetia, west of Chechnya, creating what Knut Vollebaek, chairman of the 55-nation Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, today called "a severe situation."
Earlier, Russian leaders suggested the offensive in Chechnya was aimed at creating a buffer zone to block infiltration of Islamic guerrillas from Chechnya into adjacent Russian regions, and to hunt down Chechen-based radicals whom Putin blames for terrorist bombings in Moscow and elsewhere that killed nearly 300 people. Chechen guerrillas recently staged incursions into neighboring Dagestan, with the declared aim of creating an Islamic state there.
The Russian Tass news agency quoted Lt. Gen. Gennady Troshev today as saying Russian forces had succeeded in forming a security zone adjoining Chechnya, while another officer denied Chechen reports of heavy ground fighting in the region. "Russian units do not join battles," he said. "The rebel bases are being shelled and bombed from the air."
Troshev said two Russian soldiers were killed and seven wounded in clashes Sunday, but a spokesman for Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov suggested that Russian troops had suffered more serious losses than Moscow was willing to admit. He said Chechen militiamen had destroyed a tank and several armored personnel carriers in skirmishes that left three Chechens dead and seven wounded. Chechen military sources also said a Chechen missile brought down a Russian warplane in eastern Chechnya, killing the pilot.
Moscow does not recognize Maskhadov's government as legitimate, but his aides said today that he still hopes to negotiate an end to the conflict with Moscow. Maskhadov has denied that his government has any connection with the Islamic guerrillas whose actions triggered the Russian attack, but Russian media have portrayed him as being close to the guerrillas.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Yakushkin said Yeltsin had personally approved the offensive, and Putin said after meeting with the president that he had expressed concern for the displaced Chechens.
As part of the campaign, Russia's energy companies announced they have reduced the flow of electricity to Chechnya and cut off the gas supply. Chechen sources reported that an airstrike today wiped out the region's last operating thermal power plant.