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Russians Try To Win Chechen Support

January 22, 2000

URUS-MARTAN, Russia (AP) _ The Russian tank smashed into a red brick wall that Islamic militants had built as an execution spot, a way to enforce their rule and intimidate Chechen residents. Cheers and shouts of approval rose from the hundreds of people in the surrounding crowd.

Demolishing the wall was a key part of the Russian military’s efforts to win the support of people in Urus-Martan and surrounding towns and restore government control. Other measures in this hearts-and-minds campaign include helping find the bodies of civilians killed in the fighting and promising aid to rebuild shattered towns.

It’s an uphill struggle, local official Tokha Chugayev admits.

The Russian-backed administration has few resources to offer people. Every time Chugayev goes outside, he is surrounded by residents demanding to know what the military will do to repair their damaged houses. He can only listen, since the military has given little or no actual aid.

Urus-Martan and nearby villages were badly damaged in December, when the Russians drove out rebel fighters. Most windows are covered by ragged plastic foil that can’t keep out the freezing winter winds.

One of Chechnya’s largest cities, Urus-Martan was until recently a major base for Islamic militants. But most residents in the city, 12 miles south of Chechnya’s capital Grozny, had little sympathy for the rebels _ members of the radical Wahhabi sect who sought to establish their rigid version of Islamic rule.

The militants built the execution wall, where two men were publicly killed by the Wahhabis shortly before the Russians captured the city late last year. Residents said one victim was accused of raping and killing a woman and the other was a drug dealer.

Most people resented the public executions and the Islamic law the militants tried to impose. Some residents celebrated the rebels’ exodus by drinking alcohol _ forbidden under Islamic law _ in a half-constructed mosque abandoned by the Wahhabis.

``This mosque must be destroyed so that no trace of Wahhabism is left,″ said Salavat Tebertayev, the newly appointed mayor.

Several residents interrupted him, suggesting the structure be turned into a restaurant or a strip club.

But while removing symbols of the Islamic militants is a crowd-pleasing move, the local administrators appear to have little power. The real force in the city is a pro-Russian militia led by Bislan Gantamirov, convicted of embezzling during the 1994-96 Chechen war and later pardoned by former President Boris Yeltsin.

Russian soldiers generally try to stay away from villages, and drive their armored vehicles at high speed to avoid rebel attacks _ often running into civilian cars. In Urus-Martan recently, a man was killed and another was hospitalized when an armored personnel carrier smashed into their car.

Several residents have been wounded because Russian units indiscriminately fire shells at night. When the locals complain, they say, Russian officers shrug their shoulders and reply, ``Sorry, it’s a war.″

While there is broad anger at the military for its indiscriminate use of force, some Chechens say the Russians are trying to help.

Many residents in Urus-Martan say the Russian troops have treated them fairly well. Soldiers at checkpoints ask for cigarettes or liquor, occasionally offering food and gasoline in exchange.

Earlier this month, Aslanbek Israilov, 30, was killed while trying to flee Grozny. His relatives begged the Russian military for help finding the body, and a general sent a major and a truck.

Israilov’s cousin, Magomed Israilov, said the military helped track the body down and get it buried.

``The major helped us a lot,″ he said. ``He sympathized with us, and that was not just talk. He was an honest officer who cared about people.″

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