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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Two-Front War for Pro-Moscow Chechens

wpSalavat Gibertayev's 17-year-old son, Viskhan, was tied to a post and blown to bits by rebels.
URUS-MARTAN, Chechnya -- Although he is the Moscow-appointed mayor of this dusty town of narrow streets and brick houses, Salavat Gibertayev is under no illusion that he can protect the 38,500 residents from harm. He cannot even protect his own family.

The proof flickers on the television set in his home. On the screen are scenes from a homemade video. The first clip shows Gibertayev's 17-year-old son Viskhan, dark-haired and smiling with his four brothers. The next shows the body parts that Gibertayev said the family collected two years ago after Chechen militants tied the boy to a concrete post and blew him to bits with explosives.

The doorways to Gibertayev's house are now guarded by his two pistol-toting sons, the windows are bricked up and the outside is watched by a rifle-equipped guard from inside a small blockhouse made of sandbags.

This is the price Gibertayev has paid for being an official in the Russian government in a province under siege by separatist rebels: one dead son; another afraid to go to school; and a constant threat of assassination, despite being a Chechen native himself, for what the rebels call collaboration with the enemy.

"It's the most terrifying situation. People disappear, even in the daytime, and no one takes responsibility for that," Gibertayev said in a recent interview, sitting in a straight-backed chair as his sons, 14 and 28, kept watch. "My wife cries every night. She says: 'Let's leave this place. I don't want your position. I don't want this house.' It's not a real life we lead."

It is a life reduced to a frantic attempt to stave off death, and it is all that many Chechens who strive for order in this region can expect. Three years after federal tanks rolled into Chechnya for the second time in a decade to quell a rebel independence movement, this region remains locked in torment, with a few thousand militants, most of them native Chechens, still eluding 80,000 Russian soldiers and taking vengeance on Chechens who help the government.

The Kremlin claims that Russian military successes have paved the way for a peaceful life, allowing Chechens to open schools, harvest crops, begin drafting a constitution, resettle more than 12,000 refugees and even start up a public bathhouse in Grozny, where barely a building stands intact.

But in many areas -- such as Urus-Martan, Chechnya's third-largest city -- terror reigns. Rebels, masked and ruthless, prowl the streets at night, picking off the Chechen officials, policemen, teachers and clerks who accept jobs from the federal government, which offers essentially the only paid employment in the republic. Russian soldiers offer no protection; they are too afraid to venture out of their heavily protected bunkers at night.

For most of Chechnya's 500,000 to 700,000 residents, the threat posed by the rebels is coupled with -- and surpassed by -- the threat posed by the Russian troops, whose brutal and indiscriminate sweeps of Chechnya's villages have resulted in the deaths or disappearances of hundreds of civilians, according to human rights groups.

But by targeting pro-Russian Chechens, the rebels have created the kind of panic that cripples the government and helps keep Chechnya teetering on the edge of chaos. The Russian government says that 84 of its appointees have been killed or wounded at the hands of rebels in less than three years, but accounts from district officials suggest a far higher toll. In Urus-Martan alone, for instance, officials say 60 civic leaders and government workers have been killed in that period.

The impact has been telling. In recent interviews, several Chechen administrators and officials said violence is shaking the already fragile control over Chechnya that the Russian-backed government seemed to have established by the end of last year.

"The situation was bad, and it is getting worse," said Aslanbek Aslakhanov, Chechnya's representative in the State Duma. "There is absolutely no control there. Everybody now wears masks. Everybody wears camouflage. It is total arbitrariness."

Consider what happened in the Nadterechny region north of Grozny. For more than two years, while conflict shook the surrounding districts, Nadterechny's citizens harvested their crops, pumped their oil and policed their streets virtually without incident. Dozens of former rebels there were said to have given up their arms.

Much of the credit went to the region's hard-working administrator, Akhmed Zavgayev, 46, a Chechen agricultural specialist who earned a reputation for fairness and tolerance. Confident of his success, Zavgayev shed his bodyguards a year ago.

Last month, rebel snipers killed Zavgayev as he drove to inspect a village in his region. The militants then took over a local radio station and threatened to harm anyone who cooperated with the Russians.

Zavgayev's brother Akhmar, who represents Chechnya in the Federation Council, said his own son, a Chechen policeman, tracked down the rebels in Nadterechny three weeks ago. But he was killed in a gunfight when he tried to arrest them.

Similar events have unfolded in Vedeno, a mountainous region in southeastern Chechnya, where people eke out an existence from cows, vegetable gardens and humanitarian aid. Six government workers or their relatives have been murdered there this year, including a highly respected agricultural official. His aged father and 10-year-son were also killed. Administrators there suspect the six were victims of the rebels' campaign of assassination. But no one is wholly certain of the identity of the killers behind the face masks.

"We are terribly afraid," said Khaira Selimova, the acting deputy head of Vedeno, her voice trembling during a phone call. "When we go home at night, we are not sure we will get there. Our children shake at night. We can't stand it anymore."

The atmosphere is particularly ominous in the region that surrounds Urus-Martan. Until just three years ago, the area of 107,000 residents was the center of Muslim extremism.

Shervam Yasayev, the white-haired, blue-eyed regional administrator, said he believes forgiveness and brotherhood can set Chechnya on a new path after a decade of lawlessness and conflict. But his conviction has been tested in the three weeks since seven Chechen assailants captured his son Adlan, 20.

Haggard and unshaven, Yasayev discussed the abduction in an interview in his office across from the town's heavily fortified military headquarters. He said the men somehow tracked his son to a nearby village, broke into the room where he slept, beat him with automatic rifles, tied him up with a rope and drove off in a white van. It was the night before his son was to start work as a police officer.

Yasayev knows the pattern well: He said rebels murdered his top deputy, the head of the council of elders, three religious leaders and a village administrator. He added that the administrator's pregnant wife was shot 33 times in the stomach. As the list grows, the jobs become harder to fill and the hope of order fades.

"It is more tense and more dangerous now," Yasayev said. "They want people to feel scared so that no one will work. All my children tell me to leave and go away. But I cannot leave this land."

Gibertayev, the 52-year-old, powerfully built leader of the town of Urus-Martan, is in precisely the same position. But while Yasayev preaches tolerance, Gibertayev is filled with outrage.

He has recovered from the injuries he suffered in 2000 when snipers fired at him from a passing car, and he escaped harm when someone delivered a package with a videocassette that concealed a bomb. But he fears he will lose even more than his son.

In the past two months alone, he said, about 50 armed men tried to break through his metal gate and assailants fired a grenade launcher at the wall in front of his house.

"Last night, my son slept only two hours," he said, gesturing at the somber 14-year-old who was glancing nervously out the window. "He does not go to school. We don't go outside the house.

"No one can help us. They can kill us at any time."