Chechens, Russians in unlikely alliance Joint patrols begin in Grozny to keep order, enforce truce

September 01, 1996|By Clara Germani | Clara Germani,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

GROZNY, Russia -- Kadijat Zelinhanova was an unlikely messenger in a very unlikely meeting between Chechen guerrillas and Russian troops.

Her floral skirt rustled in the summer breeze as she scurried in her house slippers across the broken glass, spent ammunition and crumbled plaster of war's destruction. The 35-year-old city employee was the go-between Wednesday for one of the first joint Russian-Chechen operations called for in last week's truce between the two sides in Russia's bloody civil war.

There were few formalities.

"Meet Lieutenant Colonel Viktor on the steps of the government building at 11," she breathlessly told Magomed Musaev, the rebel deputy battalion commander in control of downtown Grozny, on Wednesday morning.

The 30-year-old rebel is a former boxer who says his hero is Mike Tyson.

With the $800 Kalashnikov assault rifle he bought in a village market, the green-bereted Musaev peeked around the corner of the bombed-out shell of the Russian- sponsored government building. There was the Russian "Lieutenant Colonel Viktor," dressed in fatigues, unarmed and dejectedly kicking his boot into the rubble.

Resting his automatic rifle against the bullet-pocked government building, Musaev approached, rubbing the stubble of his beard with one hand. The Russian commander, who seemed almost too embarrassed to give his full name, told the rebel soldier he wanted to get his 150 Interior Ministry troops out of downtown Grozny and he wanted Musaev's men to protect their rear as he did this.

A deal was struck, though a handshake on it would be "too much," Musaev said. Similar impromptu agreements were going on all over Grozny and the surrounding countryside last week.

It was the closest the two sides had come to a peaceful settlement in the 20-month war. But it proved good enough by yesterday for Russian security chief Alexander Lebed and the top separatist commander, Aslan Maskhadov, to declare the war over. The conflict has cost 30,000 lives, stained President Boris N. Yeltsin's democratic reputation, and left Russians feeling powerless and cynical.

Rebels appeared to control all of Grozny and many parts of the nearby countryside, and by asking for rebel support, the Russians seemed to acknowledge the victory young rebels are claiming.

Russian forces withdraw

Under cease-fire agreements signed by Lebed and Maskhadov a week ago, Russian troops were withdrawing from mountain battlefields and from the Chechen capital, Grozny, which the rebels overran last month. Lebed and Maskhadov held days of meetings to solidify the peace between the Chechens, mostly Muslims who fiercely want their independence, and a Russian leadership determined to prevent secession.

Lebed said he had won a promise from the Chechens to put off discussions of independence for five years.

About 4,000 Russian troops and 2,000 rebels withdrew in long convoys from battlefronts last week, and by yesterday Grozny was being policed by joint Russian-Chechen patrols. Each side was to leave about 250 fighters in the capital to keep order and enforce the truce.

The first lasting truce of the war generated a sense of giddiness among the ghastly ruins of this shattered city and the nearby countryside.

Chechen rebels were jubilant. They thought they had won the war for independence. Daggers in their belts and automatic weapons slung over their shoulders, they cruised streets and highways with their green, hand-stitched separatist flags whipping triumphantly from car antennas.

"In our hearts and souls we want to believe that it's over, but I won't relax until all the Russian troops are gone because the person who cheated once is capable of cheating again," said Musaev, referring to several earlier truces that always seemed to be broken by Russian forces.

But many rebels weren't so cautious.

Cheered everywhere by children screaming "Allah akbar," God is great, the rebel rank and file obviously felt victorious.

Smiles of relief

Only two weeks ago, the fighting in Grozny between Russians and rebels was some of the most brutal in the war. A week later, rebels were riding jauntily with Russian troops atop withdrawing tanks. Even the usually sullen teen-age Russian draftees, whose fatigues are as tattered as their morale, could hardly contain their smiles of relief.

From behind sandbagged and camouflaged watch posts in and around Grozny as they waited to withdraw, Russian soldiers said they may finally be going home.

They hoped to leave behind the war and the military commanders they curse about as crudely as they do their Chechen enemies.

"No one ever thought we'd see this," said Andrei, 19, a blond private gesturing to a carload of rebels whooping it up near his sandbagged bunker by a Grozny airport. He wouldn't give his last name. "They wouldn't dare go by here like that [before]."

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