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Wednesday, December 22, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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War Deepens Chechen-Russian Hate; Chechens Say War Genocide; Russians Say It's Deserved

Chicago Tribune

MEKENSKAYA, Russia - Ahmed Bragimov, witnesses say, was acting alone when he went on a ghastly shooting spree in the Chechen town of Mekenskaya.

He targeted only Russians, survivors said. He was described as methodical, vowing to kill as many people as he could before Russian troops arrived to seize the town.

Bragimov shot to death at least 34 people, leaving their bodies scattered about in gardens and doorways and muddy streets. And though there is no evidence that he was working on orders of Chechen guerrillas now fighting Russian troops in the breakaway republic, most people left in Mekenskaya see Bragimov and the rebels as one and the same.

"He was a killer and a thief, just as they all are," said a man in Mekenskaya. "The Chechens are all bandits. They would all kill us if they could."

The latest war in Chechnya has deepened the animosity - hatred, for some - between ethnic Chechens and the minority Russians who make the republic their home.

Russians and Cossacks in places such as Mekenskaya say they want all Chechens, fighters and civilians alike, run off their land. Some Chechen refugees from Grozny and other cities say there never will be peace as long as ethnic Russians are in charge.

Moscow's aim is to either subjugate or eliminate the estimated 4,000 Chechen fighters still battling Russian troops.

That campaign is intensifying.

Chechen fighters today claimed to have encircled and inflicted heavy losses on a force of Russian paratroopers who parachuted into the mountains to cut off rebel supplies.

Meanwhile, federal forces stepped up their barrage today on the Chechen capital, Grozny, the last major town occupied by the rebels in the breakaway republic.

Russian troops fought hundreds of militants yesterday on the edge of Chechnya's southern mountains, and government forces pressed on with their bombardment of the capital, Grozny.

Russian forces were battling an estimated 500 rebels near the town of Serzhen-Yurt, 18 miles southeast of Grozny, the Interfax news agency reported, citing Russia's military command. Federal jets and artillery also pounded settlements across Chechnya's south.

The head of Russia's forces in Chechnya, Viktor Kazatsev, spoke yesterday of a planned "special operation" to free Grozny from Muslim rebels but denied again that an all-out assault was planned.

The Russians say they could take Grozny in a day but are going slowly to keep down casualties among their soldiers. Rumors have swirled around Mozdok, the Russian army's headquarters in the region, that a major assault on Grozny was scheduled for today through Friday. The Defense Ministry denied it.

Chechen refugees from Grozny say tens of thousands of people may remain trapped in the capital. They claim that Russian officials, at best, care little about Chechen lives.

At worst, a few Chechens say, Moscow is trying to wipe them out.

"We hear what they are saying, `Chechnya without Chechens,' " said Ramazan Shamayev, 30, who fled Grozny at the end of last week, leaving behind a mother determined to protect her property should Russian soldiers take control.

A recent arrival to a refugee processing camp within Chechnya, Shamayev is not so lucky to have space in a heated tent - 40 people in tents designed for 20. Instead, he sleeps on a table in the mess hall, surrounded by young mothers and their children. At mealtime he grabs his few possessions and wanders, and the tables fill up with watery soup, sugarless tea and refugees whose stomachs churn from hunger and nerves.

Chechen refugees bristle at commands from Russian soldiers. They complain that they must beg or pay for everything, even a chunk of bread.

Most Chechens believe that Moscow engineered this latest war not to target the Chechen race but to further the political career of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

Yet the Chechen collective memory is strong, of Chechens fighting brutal czarist forces in the 19th century, of Stalin deporting about 750,000 Chechen civilians to Kazakstan during World War II. Some wonder if Russia again is eager to rid itself of its so-called "Chechen problem" by ridding itself of its Chechens.

"We're not people to the Russians," said Nala, a 26-year-old mother of two. "We're criminals, terrorists, all of us. They say this is a war against criminals, but whom are they killing? This is genocide."

It is what the Chechens deserve, say some in Mekenskaya.

On a sunny day, Larisa Chikova was recalling how she and others hid from Bragimov as he moved through Mekenskaya killing people on Oct. 8.

Bragimov himself was caught by townspeople and beaten to death.

"He wasn't a Wahhabist," Chikova said of Bragimov, using a term that in the Caucasus means any kind of Islamic fundamentalist. "He just hated Russians. They all feel that way about Russians."

Russian officials insist they are not waging war against the Chechen people, although human-rights activists and Western critics say their bombing campaigns have caused too many civilian casualties.

Russians blame Chechen militants for a series of terrorist bombings across Russia that killed nearly 300 people and now refer to anyone opposing the Russian march into Chechnya as a bandit or terrorist.

The two groups coexisted, uneasily as it might have been sometimes, before the first Chechen war in 1994-96. Even after the first war, most Chechens seemed to separate their hostility toward the military from how they felt about the Russian people as a whole.

The conflicts and Chechnya's isolation from Russia have tested friendships and have bred suspicion even among people with no role in the fighting.

"The world's experience shows that fears of ethnic groups are much easier to wake up than to put to rest," said Alexander Iskandaryan, who heads the Center for Caucasian Studies in Moscow.

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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