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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Chechnya Caught in Grip of Antiterror Wrath

CHECHEN-AUL, Chechnya -- Near the grassy edge of the cemetery lay the bodies of five young men, waiting for burial. Their faces were bruised and torn. Some necks bore traces of rope marks. The men of this small town stood silently in a circle around them, their hands occasionally rising to their faces in a Muslim prayer.

The five men were taken from their homes here in Chechnya after midnight on Oct. 27, less than 48 hours after security forces ended the 57-hour theater siege in Moscow. Ten groups of about 15 Russian-speaking men in black-and-gray camouflage wearing black masks went to each house, witnesses said. The witnesses did not wish to be identified because they fear for their lives.

Early today, the bodies were found in a field outside a nearby village and brought back to Chechen-Aul for burial. The bodies of another two were found in the village dump several days before.

The deadly raid in Chechen-Aul, a small town of 8,000 south of Grozny, appears to reflect intensifying Russian pressure on Chechnya since Chechen hostage-takers seized the theater in Moscow. In the two weeks since the theater siege ended, at least five municipalities in Chechnya have been cordoned off by federal troops for house to house searches for rebels and weapons, a rise from the one or two simultaneous searches that is usual, the witnesses and Russian human rights workers said.

In Chechen-Aul, residents said soldiers who came after the Oct. 27 raid said they had been given permission by President Vladimir Putin for tougher action in the fight against terrorism. Federal forces blew up six apartment buildings near an army base in Grozny, where a sniper was suspected to be hiding.

An aide to Sergei Yastrzhembsky, the Kremlin's spokesman on Chechnya, said his office did not comment on incidents like the one in Chechen-Aul. He said they were often the results of internal fighting among Chechens, and then federal forces were blamed. An official in the Chechen prosecutor's office said an investigation into other disappearances from the town had begun recently, but he provided no details on the five bodies.

The Moscow hostage crisis and the subsequent shooting down of two Russian helicopters over an army base in Grozny have brought fresh promises of searches for Chechen fighters by Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov. Federal troops in Chechnya feel armed with a new sense of international legitimacy and domestic outrage over the Chechen assault in Moscow.

A village elder in Chechen-Aul, who, fearing for his safety, requested anonymity, said the Oct. 27 raid had come as a surprise, as federal searches had become less arbitrary in recent months. Troops had started to use lists of suspected fighters and refrained from taking away anyone not on them. Before that, as again on Oct. 27, soldiers seemed to choose people at random, the elder said.

"People are afraid to sleep at night," he said. "We have never had fighters here. They were killed long ago."

It appeared possible that at least one of the dead men had connections to Chechen fighters. Among them was a guest from the mountains, a rebel stronghold, identified only by his first name, Ibragim. Relatives in the village said one man worked as a bricklayer in Grozny. Another collected scraps of metal to sell.

If the truth about the Oct. 27 raid is never discovered, it will be consistent with a murky war in which casualties often trickle out in single digits, with each side inflating the other's losses.

Russian officials and parliamentarians say the Kremlin wants the war to end. They talk of a new constitution -- which has been postponed at least until spring -- and Putin has called for new elections as part of an apparent Kremlin push to try to keep Chechnya within Russia and yet quell violence.

"Chechnya was and is a part of Russia," said Mikhail Margelov, chairman of the Federation Council's foreign affairs committee and an informal presidential adviser, in an interview in Moscow. "Russia is very tired of this conflict. No one needs it. There are few political powers who would be able to use it to their advantage."

But many Chechens are skeptical.

"It's as if they want to erase the last 10 years of our history," said Monsur Tagirov, a former general prosecutor under Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov. "We already have a constitution. I helped write it. We already have a president. I voted for him."

In interviews over the past three days, Chechens expressed little sympathy for rebel fighters, whom many hold responsible for the war. Fighters are distant figures who offer no shield from the horrors of daily life like nightly shelling, curfews and a lack of running water and electricity.

"To me independence means walking freely at night under street lights or going to a movie," said Akhmed, 20, who agreed to speak on the condition his last name not be used.

The religious rhetoric of the fighters -- who say they want a Muslim state -- also seems to hold little appeal. Chechens are Muslim but tend to speak of more rigid forms of Islam, like Wahhabism, in derogatory tones.

One Chechen religious leader, originally from Serzhen-Yurt, next to what in 2000 was a well-known camp of radical Muslim fighters, said he frequently clashed with them over their activities and even rejected their offers to build a new mosque.

"They'll tell you they are fighting for Islam," said the religious leader, Turko, who refused to give his last name. "But our grandfathers and fathers gave us Islam, and that Islam shows the way to heaven. Their Islam," he continued, referring to the fighters, "is the way to hell. Guns, bombs, fighting. That is not Chechen Islam."

Chechens say the war, at this point, is sustained by war itself.

"When I see my people shot, blown up, tortured, humiliated, the desire to fight becomes very strong," said Malik Gatayev, 34, who runs an orphanage for Chechen children in Ingushetia.

Husein Gakayev, a cobbler, brought his four children and wife back to Grozny from a cramped apartment in Ingushetia when his money ran out. They live in a small shed provided by the local government. From the tiny shelter, Gakayev can see the apartment building he grew up in across the street, now bombed and burned from the war.

"It seems we are terrorists wherever we go," Gakayev said. "Hostages in Moscow got the whole world's attention. We feel like hostages, too. But I don't think anyone is listening."