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Hostage Situation Draws World Attention to Continuing Russian-Chechen Conflict - 2002-10-24

Wednesday's hostage taking at a theater in Moscow has drawn public attention to the bloody conflict between Russia and the breakaway region of Chechnya.

With the daring raid on a Moscow theater Wednesday night, Chechen separatists destroyed any perception that Russian troops have defeated them.

The group of about 40 Chechen men and women who have taken hundreds of people hostage are demanding that Russian troops pull out of the breakaway region. The rebels say they are continuing to fight for an independent Chechnya.

Chechnya has been part of Russia for centuries, but many Chechens resent Russian control and accuse Russia of oppressing the region's largely Muslim population.

Russian troops and Chechen rebels have been battling for control of the region for much of the past decade.

As the conflict drags on, analysts say many young Chechens take up arms more out of hatred for the Russians and lack of economic opportunity than because of a strong desire for an independent country.

"There is barely anything to do in Chechnya except fight for a young man," says Masha Lipman, a Moscow-based independent analyst. "And I think this is what drives the war rather than an ultimate goal that the commanders or the Chechen fighters have in mind."

The conflict between Chechnya and Russia goes back decades, to when the Russian empire was trying to subdue the Caucasus region. During World War II, Soviet leader Josef Stalin deported hundreds of thousands of Chechens to Kazakhstan and many of them died. More recently, Russian troops moved into Chechnya in 1994 to put down an independence movement.

During that campaign, Chechen rebels also used hostage-taking as a way to focus attention on their cause. In 1995, rebels stormed a hospital in southern Russia, capturing hundreds of people. More than a hundred people were killed in a botched rescue attempt by Russian soldiers and most of the hostage-takers later escaped to Chechnya.

Russian troops withdrew from Chechnya in 1996 in a humiliating defeat and many people, even outside Chechnya, came to see the rebels as gallant freedom fighters.

But after the first war, their image was tarnished by reports of kidnappings and murders. Russian troops were accused of similar abuses during the war.

Then in 1999, a series of apartment bombings killed about 300 people in Russia. Although it was never proven, Russian authorities blamed the explosions on Chechen rebels and responded by re-invading Chechnya.

At the time, the current president, Vladimir Putin, was prime minister, and analyst Masha Lipman says his tough stance on Chechnya helped him become president.

"He eventually became an extremely popular president in Russia just because he assumed responsibility and he undertook to defend his nation," she said.

Mr. Putin has said numerous times that the war is over except for a few mopping up operations. But attacks like the theater hostage situation indicate that the Chechens still have the desire and the ability to put together sophisticated military operations.

So far, there is no official information on the identities of the gunmen. But to President Putin they are simply terrorists. He claims the rebels are part of a large movement that receives funding from Arab countries and has ties to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist network.