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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Guerrillas Moving to Fill Power Vacuum

GROZNY -- Abu Hassan, knife in his belt, gold-toothed smile on his lips, scrambled down from a heap of twisted steel girders where he had hoisted a green Islamic victory flag.

"You can call me 'the Slaughterer,'" the Chechen guerrilla said cheerfully, standing amid the bombed remains of Grozny's presidential palace. "I make it my business to slaughter any Russian prisoners I get my hands on. Bring me one and I'll show you.''

Officially, "the Slaughterer'' and his small band of rebels should not be standing in the middle of the main square of this ruined city. Officially, they are supposed to have disappeared quietly by now in a parallel withdrawal of Russian and Chechen forces. Officially, the main question he has fought for -- whether Chechnya will get its independence from Russia -- will be postponed for five years to give both sides a chance to cool off.

But the reality here is that the rapid withdrawal of Russian troops from Grozny in the last 10 days has created an enormous power vacuum that is rapidly being filled by the Chechen separatists. As far as the Chechens are concerned, they won the war and the rest is details.

"Russia knows very well that it lost this war,'' said Muslim Varayev, 20, a Chechen student. "Chechnya is absolutely independent. The statements [issued by negotiators] are just two pieces of paper and words.''

On the streets and airwaves of Grozny, there is little doubt about who is in charge. The green flag of Ichkeria, as the Chechen rebels call their secessionist republic, is flying everywhere. The swaggering rebels set their watches an hour behind Moscow time. Grozny television, firmly under the guerrillas' control, airs four hours of turgid programming every evening, much of it rehashing the daring rebel raid that defeated Russian forces in Grozny last month.

In towns and villages across the republic, the Chechens are celebrating. The other night in Alkhan-Yurt, a western suburb of Grozny where more than 100 fighters arrived home in a convoy of trucks to cheers and tears Saturday night, scores of Chechens were dancing and clapping in the courtyard of a big house. An accordion played a ditty and the rebels made a racket firing their weapons in the air.

Although the peace deal brokered by national security chief Alexander Lebed skirts the question of independence by postponing it, Boris Yeltsin and every other top Russian official has declared that Russia's territorial integrity is non-negotiable. Translation: Chechnya's independence is not on the table.

The rebels' dominance on the ground on the one hand, and Moscow's outright denial on the other, is causing jitters here despite a withdrawal of thousands of troops, a reasonably firm cease-fire and one of the quietest spells of the 21-month-old war.

"Take care -- the war is not over yet,'' said Tim Guldimann, head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's mission here. "I don't want to project too much optimism.''

Hundreds, maybe thousands more Chechen fighters are still in town, whether in civilian clothes or not.

"The difference is that the Chechen fighters can put two fingers in their mouths and whistle, and 100 of their friends will appear immediately,'' said Russian colonel Vladimir Kostenko. "Our guys can't do that.''