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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Pro-Russian Cabinet Meets in Grozny

NAZRAN, Southern Russia — The Cabinet of the pro-Russian administration in Chechnya convened its first meeting on Wednesday in the shattered capital, Grozny, even as carpenters were busy lugging carpeting into the barely completed government building.

The meeting was the surest sign yet that the federal government is intent on returning the civilian administration of Chechnya to Grozny, which was practically razed by relentless Russian bombardment last winter and which is still heavily infiltrated by Chechen rebels.

The civilian administration had been operating out of Gudermes, 30 kilometers east of Grozny, since late 1999, when Russian forces overran the city. It was first headed by a Russian, Nikolai Koshman, who was replaced in June 2000 by a Moslem cleric, Akhmad Kadyrov.

The government has missed numerous previous deadlines to move back to Grozny, and the Cabinet meeting on Wednesday was just a test: After Chechen government members finished discussing the two items on the agenda, the return of refugees from a neighboring Russian region and plans for spring sowing, they traveled back to Gudermes.

Some Grozny residents accused the Cabinet of foot-dragging.

"If the government moved to Grozny, life would gradually return to normal, and refugees would return, too," said Lilikhan Yunusova, a 53-year-old schoolteacher. "I understand that Grozny isn't a safe town to live in, because every day people are killed, robbed and detained here. Yet we live here, and the government could work here."

A 22-year-old student who identified himself only by his first name, Alikhan, said the government's sluggishness was unnerving.

"The government's unwillingness to move to Grozny puts everyone on guard. It means there is something in the air, and another military campaign may be launched," he said.

There have been no major clashes between Russian troops and the rebels for about a year, but the rebels continue to keep the federal forces on the defensive with daily ambushes, shelling and land mine explosions, many of them in Grozny. Seven Russian servicemen were killed and at least 12 were wounded over the past 24 hours, a Chechen government official said on condition of anonymity.

The government has stepped up its efforts to renovate government buildings in the center of Grozny over the past few months, and construction managers blamed the delays on financial problems, not security concerns.

"We're behind schedule because we lack money and construction materials," said Tamerlan Didigov, a top manager in the Chechen construction department. "I often resort to personal contacts to get construction materials and sometimes borrow money from acquaintances."

The Chechen ministries of health and education are already working in Grozny. Stanislav Ilyasov, the Chechen prime minister who presided over the Cabinet meeting on Wednesday, said that top government officials would start working there permanently in a week.

Meanwhile, federal judges on Wednesday sentenced two alleged rebels for mass murder of ethnic Russians living in Chechnya. The court in Pyatigorsk, a Russian town near Chechnya, sentenced Ramzes Goychayev to life in prison and Rustam Khalidov to seven years at hard labor, Interfax reported.