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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Flag Raised in Shatoi, But War's Not Over

The military trumpeted a decisive victory over Chechen rebels when the Russian flag was hoisted over Shatoi, the last rebel stronghold in the mountainous south.

But the experience of the previous war, which culminated in Russia's defeat in 1996, proves that the end of outright rebel resistance might become the beginning of a nightmare for the troops stretched across the hostile territory.

"The operation is complete," Konstantin Makeyev, the military spokesman in the regional base of Mozdok, told reporters Tuesday. "We will chase the bandits and finally destroy them."

Interior Minister Vladimir Rushailo, who briefed acting President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday, said it was time to move from a military campaign to a policing operation.

"The military phase of the anti-terrorist operation in Chechnya is drawing to a close. At its final stage we are planning to shift responsibility to the Interior Ministry," Itar-Tass quoted Rushailo as saying.

Itar-Tass said the Defense Ministry planned to start pulling about 60,000 troops out of Chechnya soon. Approximately 16,000 army servicemen would be based there permanently, supported by up to 15,000 Interior Ministry troops.

The military says that although it is still searching for rebels who fled Shatoi, the town and commanding heights on the surrounding mountains are under Russian control. The reality could be less optimistic.

During the previous two-year war, the military made similar statements after Shatoi also became the last Chechen stronghold to fall into the Russian hands.

But it turned out that the rebels maintained a network of groups across Chechnya and kept means of communication and command, allowing them to gather guerrillas disguised as civilians into relatively strong groups for hit-and-run attacks.

In fact, Russian troops controlled the region only during the day time. At night, they were forced to set up defenses around their barracks to avert rebel attacks.

The climax came in the summer of 1996, when thousands of rebels emerged from nowhere, attacked Grozny and forced the Russians into a humiliating peace deal.

Russia could also face problems from the fact that apparently none of the key rebel commanders, from Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov to Arab-born Khattab, has been captured or killed. Shamil Basayev and Salman Raduyev are also at large.

"Neither Maskhadov nor Basayev was found among the dead," a military source told Itar-Tass of action around Shatoi.

"Perhaps the commanders and their fighters are somewhere in the mountains. It cannot be ruled out that they left beforehand, through prepared corridors."