Wed, Sep 12, 2007 - Page 13 News List

Chechnya on a wing and a prayer

For years, air travel to Grozny involved landing and taking off in harrowing corkscrews to dodge missiles. Now, the war-torn city is calm and has a shiny new airport

By CJ CHIVERS  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , GROZNY, RUSSIA

A Tupolev-134 jet arrives at the Grozny airport.

PHOTO : AP

The airliner descended toward what recently had been one of the most devastated cities on earth. The passengers gazed out the windows. Beneath them were intricate networks of bunkers and artillery trenches, traces of war cut deep into the soil.

These were the earthworks from which Russia's army fired barrages into the capital of Chechnya off and on for nearly a decade, reducing much of a city of roughly 400,000 people to rubble.

The trenches were empty. The plane descended gently, passing through airspace where not long ago almost no pilot would dare fly.

The jet, an aging Tupolev 134, alighted on a rebuilt runway and taxied to a modern new terminal. So ended Flight 9633, the direct morning air service from Moscow to Grozny, a route that has begun to shift perceptions of Chechnya as a Russian republic still racked by war.

One Chechen passenger, a refugee who immigrated to Germany in 1999 and would give only his first name, Khalid, had spent the last minutes of the flight pressed near his window, snapping pictures with a digital camera, amazed to see peaceful scenes below.

"My relatives said the war is over, and I am coming home," he said. "They say Chechnya is quiet again."

This single sentence - Chechnya is quiet again - is exactly the opinion of the Kremlin and its pro-Russian proxies in Chechnya, and exactly the sort of assessment of Russia's counterinsurgency efforts that few would have predicted.

Since this spring, Flight 9633 has been one of six daily flights ferrying passengers in and out of the republic, a service all but inconceivable even a year ago, when Grozny's airfield remained a broken airstrip beside ruins.

Violence continues in Chechnya, and there are skirmishes and occasional bombs in neighboring republics. But the fighting in the republic is limited and sporadic, and Grozny is in the midst of a building boom.

With water and electricity restored in many neighborhoods, Grozny no longer matches its post-Soviet reputation as one of the world's most horrible cities. Airline service, Chechen officials say, is another example of a transformation.

Last year, when the Chechen president, Ramzan Kadyrov, pledged to resume civilian air service, he seemed to have chosen a task at which his government could only fail. At the time, Chechnya had no working civilian airfield. And Chechen separatist Web sites had made videos of aircraft being downed with heat-seeking, shoulder-fired missiles an Internet staple. Who would fly Air Grozny?

Bad omens abounded. In 2002, separatists shot down an Mi-26, Russia's largest military helicopter, killing more than 120 soldiers. In 2004, two female Chechen suicide bombers bribed their way through security checkpoints and exploded themselves on passenger planes after leaving Moscow.

The resulting crashes killed 89 people, cementing the public notion that Chechnya and civil aviation were incompatible terms.

But the insurgency has turned sharply in favor of pro-Kremlin Chechen forces since late 2004. Kadyrov, who was selected this year by President Vladimir Putin to become the republic's president, rushed through the airport's reconstruction and celebrated his political rise by welcoming the first flights on the repaired airstrip this spring.

To date, the remaining rebels have been unable to disrupt the air service, which Chechen officials say carries as many as 10,000 passengers a month, though that figure could not be independently verified.

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