Chechen Ex-Rebels Rearmed by Kremlin

ReutersChechen special forces, trained and re-equipped by the government, guarding a Grozny road. "We now have new weapons," a Chechen officer said.
SHALI, Chechnya -- At the barracks nestled in the Caucasus mountains, the Chechen military officer popped a chunk of moist, fatty mutton into his mouth and leaned across the table.

"We now have new weapons, new armored personnel carriers, sniper rifles and anti-mine equipment. The Russians have re-equipped and trained my men, " he said wiping the grease from his mouth with the back of his hand.

This trade-off has helped President Vladimir Putin subdue a decade-long separatist insurgency in Chechnya. The government has armed and equipped a local army loyal to Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, a former rebel leader, giving it the task of keeping control.

Analysts have warned that this force could turn against the Kremlin. Government handlers supervise foreign journalists visiting Chechnya, but Reuters gained a rare opportunity to go unsupervised to a base in Shali, a town where a unit of the paramilitary police, the "Kadyrov regiment," is based.

To one side of the barrack's dining hall, four Chechen soldiers stood smiling.

They wore black bandannas and new camouflage uniforms, ammunition magazines filled their chest pouches and they cradled modern Kalashnikov automatic rifles with grenade-launchers fixed to the barrels.

The officer leaned back in his chair. Deep lines creased his face and his pale-blue eyes sparkled with pride. "Look at these men," he said waving his arm at the soldiers. "They've just come back from spending three days hiding in the snow. The Russians can't do that."

Outside, in the courtyard of the barracks, stood an armored personnel carrier -- another gift from the Russians. Flying from its hatch was not the Russian flag, but the Chechen banner with a portrait of Kadyrov's father, assassinated by rebels, superimposed on the cloth.

"Many in the Russian military and intelligence services believe the real enemy is not the remaining rebels but these Chechen military units," said Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent Moscow-based military analyst. "These Chechen units are the best equipped and battle-ready in the Russian army."

The crucial question is whether Kadyrov's loyalty to the Kremlin will last.

He has a strong personal bond to Putin, but since he steps down in May, it is unclear whether Kadyrov will transfer his allegiance to Dmitry Medvedev, despite his pledge this month of 100 percent support to the president-elect.

A watery wintry sun melted the snow covering the streets outside the barracks in Shali. Inside, the Chechen officer took another slurp of his tea.

"Do British army officers get paid as well as me?" he asked, saying he receives around $1,400 per month, a fortune in Chechnya, where unemployment is rampant. "Have some more potatoes," he said, pushing a plate of fried potatoes -- crisp and smothered in oil -- across the table.

Another Chechen soldier walked in wearing an all-black special-forces uniform. He stopped and glanced at the foreigner and spoke firmly to the Chechen officer in Chechen.

"It's probably time for you to go," the officer then said.