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Chechyna Conflict Becoming a Blot on Russia's Image

The Russian republic of Chechnya in the south Caucasus has become synonymous with war and death. For almost three years, Russian forces have been fighting a bloody battle with Chechen rebels for control of what used to be one of the most beautiful regions in Russia. The conflict and the way Russian troops are fighting it have also become a source of continuing criticism for Russia's international image.

Residents in the Chechen city of Grozny go to sleep and wake up to the sound of Russian military helicopters flying overhead. Almost every street corner has a guardpost, manned by camouflage-wearing soldiers who tote Kalashnikovs. In black spray-paint on the side of the makeshift cinderblock posts is written, "Don't come closer than 10 meters or we'll shoot."

These are but a few signs of the ongoing military conflict in Chechnya, a Russian republic that has seen little but war since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Moscow has been battling Chechen separatists who say they want independence. Russian authorities say they are simply terrorists - no different than the terrorists the United States says it is fighting in Afghanistan.

Lieutenant General Vladimir Moltenskoi is in charge of the military operation in Chechnya. He says Russia is winning the war against the Chechen fighters. "Our goal of course is not to leave a single hope to the bandits," he said. "The bandits should either surrender or they will be destroyed."

While Moscow says it is winning the war, Russian soldiers die almost daily in mine explosions or ambushes by Chechen separatists.

This is the second Russian military campaign in Chechnya in 10 years. The first war lasted from 1994 until 1996, and ended with Russia withdrawing from the region in a humiliating defeat.

Russian forces reinvaded Chechnya in September 1999, after a series of apartment bombings that Russian officials blamed on Chechen rebels. About 150,000 refugees who fled Chechnya during the war are still living in neighboring areas, afraid to come home.

Russian officials say they have brought order to the region. General Moltenskoi says Moscow would eventually like to pull its 87,000 troops out of Chechnya altogether. Local Chechen officials would then run the region. For now, the troops are staying because the region is not safe.

The Russian government arranges tours to the region for both foreign and Russian journalists, but closely monitors where they can go and with whom they talk.

The journalists in this group were guarded by 12 men from the interior ministry and stayed at a military compound near Grozny. Russian officials arranged interviews with a succession of officials who work in the Moscow-backed Chechen government in an enclosed compound in the center of town. Contact with average Chechen citizens is rare.

Moscow's critics say trips like these show how Russia is trying to shape news coverage of the war and limit criticism. And human rights groups say there is much to criticize.

Eliza Musayeva is the director of the Memorial office in the neighboring Russian republic of Ingushetia. Memorial is a Russian human rights organization that investigates claims of alleged abuses by the Russian military in Chechnya. She says the worst abuses happen during so-called "zachistki" when Russian troops close off a town to look for rebels. Suspected rebels are then taken away to what are called filtration points.

"They take them to this filtration point, where they check whether they are connected with bandit formations," she said. "All this check in reality means is beating people up, torture with electricity, forcing them to sign some papers. In the best case scenario, the relatives buy them out of the filtration points. In the worst case scenario, these people either disappear or die."

During this government-sponsored trip, a Chechen woman approaches the group of journalists, asking for help. Her name is Amenat Kuloyev and she says she is trying to find her son who was taken by Russian troops almost two months ago.

"I said, 'What are you doing? Why are you taking him? What happened?' And they didn't answer," she said.

Journalists are quickly whisked away from the woman into a meeting with the local prosecutor who insists such instances are rare.

But Russian officials do acknowledge that there are problems. In March, Russian authorities instituted a new policy known as Order 80. Among other things, Russian troops are now supposed to identify themselves during military operations and keep a list of all the people they detain.

When the new policy was announced, it was seen as an admission by Russian forces that their troops had indeed behaved poorly. But General Moltenskoi says complaints of human rights abuses are sometimes exaggerated.

"You should understand about these complaints, that for any mother, her children would be the dearest and the best, as well as for any wife, her husband would be the best one," he said. "Sometimes they don't want to believe that these 'best' are members of bandit formations."

Human rights groups said they were at first hopeful that the situation would change. But now they say it was just a public relations move by Moscow. Ms. Musayeva says the situation is getting worse. She says she is counting on other countries such as the United States to pressure Russia to clean up its act in Chechnya.

But in the post-September 11 world, Russia has become an important ally of the United States in the war against terrorism. Ms. Musayeva and human rights activists like her say they fear the newfound partnership between Moscow and Washington will make U.S. officials less likely to criticize Russian conduct in Chechnya.