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Helicopter Shot Down by Chechen Rebel Missile, Says Russia - 2002-08-30

Russian officials say there is no doubt a helicopter carrying Russian troops in Chechnya was shot down by a missile, most likely fired by Chechen rebels. The announcement is expected to lead to a shake-up within the Russian military, but it also illustrates the problems the military is having in the breakaway region.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said the helicopter was shot down by a surface-to-air missile. The incident, in which 118 people died, was the largest loss of life for Russian forces since the beginning of the second Chechen campaign.

Mr. Ivanov said military officials will be severely reprimanded. He said they violated military regulations and contributed to the catastrophe.

The defense minister accused the officers of sloppiness, irresponsibility, and negligence. He said they will be held criminally responsible for the incident.

The helicopter was ferrying troops to Khankala, the main Russian military base in Chechnya, when it crashed on August 19.

Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent analyst in Moscow, says the shooting down of the helicopter demonstrates how little control Russian troops actually have in Chechnya, where they have been fighting separatists for three years. But he says, Moscow is trying to portray the incident as an exception, rather than the rule. "They tend to call it a catastrophe, a one-time event, while at the same time continuing the propaganda barrage that the situation in Chechnya is normalizing," he said.

Mr. Felgenhauer says Russian officials may try to use the announcement that the helicopter was shot down to pressure the neighboring Caucasian country of Georgia. Russia accuses Georgia of harboring Chechen rebels in the Pankisi Gorge region of Georgia, which borders Chechnya. Georgia denies the charges. Recently, the issue has become more heated. "Now, the Russian authorities can actually use, if they wish, this attack as another pretext of putting pressure on Georgia, that this terrible disaster was caused by weapons that could have been smuggled in from the Pankisi valley," said Pavel Felgenhauer.

The Russian defense minister said a more thorough investigation would be made in the next few weeks.