Russian troops selling weapons to Chechens

March 20, 1995|By Los Angeles Times

ACHKOI-MARTAN, Russia -- If Russian forces have suffered heavy casualties in their three-month war with secessionist Chechnya, they can start by looking at themselves. Across the breakaway republic, Russian troops are selling weapons to the very rebels they are fighting.

"It's nonsense. They sell us weapons that are used to kill them," said Lom-Ali Shamayev, a 34-year-old Chechen businessman with a New York address who bankrolls his own band of 116 guerrillas.

Mr. Shamayev is one of the Russians' best customers, but there are reportedly many others. Russian officers and soldiers run guns to everyone from a vodka salesman in Tolstoi-Yurt to Gen. Aslan Maskhadov, commander of the Chechen armed forces.

The practice -- prompted by greed, not sympathy for the Chechen cause -- could prolong a war that the Russian government conservatively estimates has cost the lives of 1,300 soldiers.

Shamin, a 28-year-old engineer who sells liquor from a roadside card table outside Tolstoi-Yurt, said he understands why Russian soldiers sell their weapons: They just don't care anymore.

"Everything's lost its value to them. They're cynical," the young engineer explained. "They give things away. One soldier walked up, tossed a pistol on my table, took a bottle of vodka and walked away."

Soldiers manning checkpoints sell the weapons they have confiscated or captured from rebel fighters, because no one within the Russian military hierarchy monitors the fate of "trophy weapons."

Ammunition and grenades are also readily available.

"No one keeps track of how many bullets you fire or grenades you throw," explained Lt. Igor Polutin, a 26-year-old prisoner of war held by Chechen fighters outside Argun. Lieutenant Polutin confirmed that officers and soldiers sell weapons, although he added that ordinary soldiers are held strictly accountable for their rifles.

When they're too lazy or too isolated to sell ammunition, the Russians often throw it away. In a muddy field in Tolstoi-Yurt where Russian artillery units were based, children were observed playing with bullets and rockets strewn among the trash. The Russian unit had pulled out five days earlier and dozens of Chechens had already loaded up what they could carry, but crates of bullets remained.

Bezlan, a 14-year-old boy who buys gas from Russian soldiers to resell it to Chechen civilians and guerrillas, said that Russian soldiers "will do anything for vodka. They sell everything -- lemons [slang for grenades], guns, bullets -- but we don't buy anything except rockets. We shoot them off at night."

Until he was approached by the Russians, Mr. Shamayev bought his weapons at an open-air market in Urus-Martan, a nearby town whose residents oppose Chechnya's secession from Russia and have cordial, although strained, relations with Russian soldiers. Everything from anti-tank grenades to decades-old six-shooters are on display at the market, on blankets draped over car hoods. Business is brisk.

But Mr. Shamayev said he stopped visiting the Urus-Martan market after the Russians made overtures outside the village of Assinovskaya, where Russian and Chechen lines were less than a mile apart. Mr. Shamayev responded, and a meeting was set up in a nearby forest. The Russians arrived in an armored personnel carrier.

Mr. Shamayev dealt only with two young soldiers. He paid in dollars, and that first successful deal has since been repeated.

"I don't need to peer into their souls, I need a quick weapons buy, to arm my friends," Mr. Shamayev recounted. "But they feel a sort of complex, and themselves start making excuses before me. They say, 'Don't shoot ordinary soldiers, shoot the officers. We're just following orders.' They say, 'When we're told to shoot at the enemy, we shoot into the air instead.' Or they say, 'Shoot at the special forces soldiers [instead of us]. They're dogs, they do all the looting.'

"I don't ask them about this, they themselves start talking. But I pat them on the shoulder anyway and say, 'Hey fellows, war is war.' "

Even the FSK, a successor agency to the KGB, has confirmed the all-too-obvious fact that Russian soldiers have been arming the enemy. The FSK also says arms from abroad swell the arsenals of fighters for Chechen President Dzhokar M. Dudayev.

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