In Chechnya, an Army in Limbo

ACHKHOI-MARTAN, Chechnya -- Russian officers and men in western Chechnya are stuck in a curious limbo, not sure whether they are about to go home or start fighting separatist rebels once again.

The two warring sides are more or less sticking to the terms of a military agreement signed last week to stop the eight-month-old conflict and slowly disengage their forces.

But among those manning a checkpoint on the outskirts of Achkhoi-Martan, a town some 45 kilometers west of the capital Grozny, mistrust of the enemy is still deep.

"To be honest, we are afraid of the rebels. They are so strong and well-armed. Every Chechen fighter can hold an automatic rifle in one hand and shoot perfectly," said Vadim, a 19-year-old soldier. "At night, we shoot at every suspicious noise."

Just seven kilometers away to the south, Vadim and his compatriots can see the town of Bamut, one of the rebels' main strongholds, where many Kremlin soldiers have lost their lives.

"I'm happy military activities have been halted but I am afraid some sort of fighting will go on for another three years at least. I do not believe all the Chechens will give up their arms," said Roman, a 19-year-old sergeant.

Roman, Vadim and the others spend their daylight hours cleaning their guns and waiting for the next set of orders.

"The troops' morale is very high and we are ready to obey all our instructions," said Lieutenant Vadim Slepnikov, 23, showing markedly more enthusiasm than his men.

"If we withdraw from Chechnya, it would beg the question: Why have we been here for so long and what were we doing here all this time?" he asked. "The people in Russia will spit in our faces if we come back without finishing the job."

Slepnikov and others suggested leaving the mountainous south of the republic to the rebels, while keeping the more fertile lowlands for Russia. "The Chechens would become so poor that they would realize it is impossible to survive without Russia," said Roman.

"I am so fed up with this. I just want to get out of here. Who wants to go back home in a zinc coffin?"

?A Russian soldier was killed early Sunday and five others were wounded in the latest series of shooting incidents defying the peace agreement in Chechnya, Russian news agencies reported.

Russian security forces came under fire from Chechen rebels five times in the capital Grozny in the previous 24 hours, Itar-Tass said.

Nonetheless, for the second straight day military sources were quoted as saying the number of skirmishes had declined since the signing of a military accord between Moscow and Chechen officials on July 30. (AP)