Mon, Aug 23, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Putin visits war-torn Chechnya

CONTINUING VIOLENCE Only a day after a series of attacks by militants against police stations and polling precincts, the Russian president made a surprise trip to the region

AP , VLADIKAVKAZ, RUSSIA

Russian President Vladimir Putin made an unannounced visit to Chechnya yesterday, laying flowers at the grave of the war-ravaged region's assassinated president a week before a vote to replace him.

Putin arrived early in the morning in slain Chechen President Akhmad Kadyrov's home village of Tsentoroi, Russian news agencies reported. He placed flowers at Kadyrov's grave along with Kadyrov's son and the Kremlin's favored candidate in the Aug. 29 election, Chechen Interior Minister Alu Alkhanov, the reports said.

Putin's visit came after a night of heavy fighting in the Chechen capital Grozny, where authorities said rebels attacked a police station near a central square, as well a police patrols and a polling station for next week's vote.

Accounts of casualties varied. The fighting at the police station left seven police and nine civilians dead, an official in Chechnya's Moscow-backed government said. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said more than 10 other bodies had been found but not yet identified.

The police were killed and six wounded in attacks on police patrols in Grozny, the official said, and one polling place in the capital came under fire from a grenade launcher.

A duty officer at Chechnya's Interior Ministry said that one policeman had been killed and another taken captive by the attackers, and that an attack on a school in Grozny left two firefighters who were acting as guards there injured.

A spokesman for Russia's military campaign in Chechnya, Major General Ilya Shabalkin, said some 50 militants were killed, the ITAR-Tass and Interfax news agencies reported. ITAR-Tass quoted Shabalkin as saying 16 civilians were killed, but Interfax quoted him as saying 16 were injured.

The rebel death figure was based on accounts from law enforcement officers and intercepted rebel radio messages, Shabalkin said, and neither number could be confirmed. Both Russian forces and rebels often overestimate casualties on the other side.

Interfax quoted Shabalkin as saying that the bodies of 18 rebels were collected and that 12 rebels were detained. He said the number of deaths among servicemen and Chechen police totaled 12.

The visit also came a day before Akhmad Kadyrov's birthday, which authorities have said will be marked in Chechnya by several events. While many Chechens feared or disliked Kadyrov, a former separatist who became the Kremlin's most powerful ally in the region, Russian and Chechen officials have lionized him since his death.

"We lost a sincere, courageous, talented and decent person," ITAR-Tass quoted Putin as saying at the grave in Tsentoroi. "He had no other aim but one -- to serve his people."

"He moved toward this goal on a difficult path, but was always honest, and we must do everything we can to carry out all that Akhmad Kadyrov planned, all his good works and initiatives," Putin said.

Putin rarely visits Chechnya, where rebels have shot down Russian military aircraft in recent years, and the trips -- made under tight security -- are not announced in advance. Just a few hours his arrival, which did not appear to be linked with the violence in Grozny, Interfax reported that Putin was back in the Black Sea resort city of Sochi along with Ramzan Kadyrov and Alkhanov.

The election of Akhmad Kadyrov last October, in a vote human rights groups called fraudulent, was part of a Kremlin strategy to bring the region under closer control and weaken militants who have fought two wars against Russian forces in the past decade. But deadly fighting persists nearly five years after the start of the second war, launched when Putin took a tough stance on Chechnya as prime minister in 1999.

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