The Big Round-Up
By Sanobar Shermatova, special to Prague Watchdog
On March 14, the day of the Russian presidential elections, Russian special services planned on having key figures of the Chechen resistance on display. Their plan failed.
"We won’t be able to get [Ichkerian President Aslan] Maskhadov by March 14," stated Khaled Yamadayev with regret. “But you can be sure that after the election he’ll voluntarily come to us, or else he’ll be arrested.”
Yamadayev recently replaced his camouflage uniform with civilian clothing, now that as first assistant secretary of the Chechen regional branch of the United Russia party he was elected to the State Duma. Meanwhile his brother Sulim and his band of jaegers spend their days hunting down guerrillas.
The big round-up began last autumn in the mountains by Chechen and Russian special service units determined it will end with either the capture or death of the key resistance fighters. Also involved is the security service of the Moscow-backed Chechen president, which is led by his son Ramzan, as well as special Chechen special troops GRU, the military intelligence unit.
The operational tactics are typically Chechen. First of all, they find the contact men (messengers or so-called "khodoki") through whom field commanders communicate. These men are usually the fearless relatives of the commanders as they’re the only ones that can be trusted with confidential matters. They deliver not only verbal messages, but also video-taped speeches of various commanders. These tapes contain orders to other fighters, appeals to the Chechens, and condemnations for the Moscow-backed Chechen president Akhmad Kadyrov and all "traitors who collaborate with the occupiers".
These men are appreciated for being able to get information on the movements of field commanders. In the case of Magomed Khambiyev, Defense Minister of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, his relatives were arrested for being contact men. Among them was his sister who allegedly delivered to him not only messages, but also videocassettes.
According to a Chechen police officer who requested anonymity the official version about Khambiyev’s surrender does not tally with the facts; he was actually arrested as a result of a special operation, which was later portrayed as a "voluntary surrender" to the Chechen authorities.
This plan was very well thought out as Khambiyev most probably would play a key role in the future events. If he signs an order to disarm his forces he’ll receive amnesty. However, that will only be a political gesture; guerrillas willing to fight will continue to do so despite Khambiyev’s instructions to the contrary. Besides, the disarmament order could denied by Aslan Maskhadov, who is the commander-in-chief of the forces of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria.
For this reason Maskhadov is the next target after Khambiyev. As Khaled Yamadayev said, Maskhadov is encircled from all sides; all his connections are under arrest. Also, some videos of Maskhadov's speeches have been confiscated. On one of them, he tells Khambiyev that he’s sending him $1,000 and promises he’ll shortly be sending two thousand more. In comparison with the sums the guerrillas are used to, this just proves that Maskhadov is short of money.
Maskhadov's capture is probably a necessary scenario for Moscow: the Ichkerian President could disband the resistance movement and then resign. In that way, the ambiguous situation of having two Chechen presidents would be legally resolved, adding legitimacy to the present leadership of the republic.
Maskhadov's resignation has another added value for Moscow in that it would strengthen Kadyrov’s position. In the past the Chechen Republic’s independence has not been legally recognized by Russia; however President Boris Yeltsin signed a peace agreement in 1997 with Aslan Maskhadov, the President of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria. That paved the way for drawing the conclusion that Moscow has recognized the sovereignty of the self-proclaimed republic.
Should Maskhadov be arrested and agree to make the resignation legal, the problem with the two Chechen republics would also be resolved. In fact, Ichkeria as a symbol exists only as long as its leaders and resistance fighters continue to operate.
Along with trying to capture Maskhadov, the hunt for the maverick Shamil Basayev continues, although there is no need for him to be caught alive. According to our source, a tactic of isolating the field commander from everyone is being used. All these years Basayev, by using intelligence data, easily escaped his persecutors; but their job now is to deprive him of this information, thereby making him vulnerable.
The field commander Doku Umarov (a native of Achkhoi-Martan) also appears on the special services blacklist as does Rezvan Chitigov (a past resident of Shali). The Russian special services suspect Chitigov of cooperation with US military intelligence (because he once lived in America) as well as with the well-known field commander Khattab, who was killed in 2002. The hunt for Chitigov has been ongoing for a long time; but so far the Chechen special services only captured some members of his group, including Turko Khuziyev, who was training suicide bombers.
Last on this list is the former Ichkerian vice-president Vakha Arsanov, who has numerous rumors swirling around him. From the beginning of the second Chechen campaign, Arsanov was never at war with the federal forces. Our source asserted that at various times this former co-worker of Maskhadov sat in Ingushetia and occasionally emerged, offering to negotiate with Moscow.
People who are in the know say that there were certain arrangements made between Arsanov and Kadyrov, who promised to grant Arsanov safety. And Arsanov, in turn, could then represent himself as a member of the government of Ichkeria with all impending results. In other words, to replace Maskhadov in the event of his death.
But this is just in case the Maskhadov plan ends in failure.
Sanobar Shermatova is a correspondent with the weekly Moskovskiye novosti.