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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Chechens Relish Tour of Duty in Lebanon

For MTChechen soldiers are being welcomed in Lebanon, where many locals say they don't trust troops from NATO countries serving as UN peacekeepers.
SIDON, Lebanon -- Not so long ago, the Russian camp was a war zone.

Today, the biggest bang most of the 250 military engineers here encounter is the 5 a.m. wake-up call at the sandy settlement of 50 or so tents nestled against the Mediterranean.

The relative calm is largely due to the end of hostilities between Israel and Hezbollah. But it's also because two platoons of elite soldiers plucked from the Army's 42nd Division's East and West battalions, based in Chechnya, are standing guard.

"Everything is calm here," says Rasud Baimuratov, commander of one of the platoons. An ethnic Chechen with a towering figure, Baimuratov and his comrades have been welcomed by locals who say they trust Russians more than Western forces.

Bilyal Adzhami, a store owner in the southern Lebanese town of Nabatia, explained that many locals see the Russian troops as a counterbalance to the French, Italian and Spanish forces, among others, helping maintain a UN-imposed peace.

"People don't trust the NATO countries that sent peacekeepers here under the UN mission," Adzhami said. "The local populations think their goal here is to protect Israel. And Moscow has always stood up for fair negotiations of the Middle East crisis and for keeping the peace in Lebanon."

What's more, as Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov has noted, sending soldiers who are mostly Muslim to patrol in a Muslim country has its benefits.

"We get along great with the local population," said Malgobek Khamurzayev, one of the Russian soldiers deployed to southern Lebanon.

Russia declined to take part in the United Nations' peacekeeping operation. But it did send engineers to rebuild bridges in an area hard hit by 34 days of aerial bombings and intense ground combat.

The decision to send the Chechen battalions has been widely viewed as a move by the Kremlin to show the republic as stable after years of war.

Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov has called the move "entirely logical," saying military operations in Chechnya have long since come to an end.

Still, the Chechen battalions, which report to the Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff, are composed of an unusual bunch.

The East battalion includes former Chechen separatists who once battled Russian Army troops but later switched sides. Human rights groups have accused the battalion of atrocities against civilians in Chechnya during regular search-and-destroy missions.

For MT
Russian officers and engineers conferring on the reconstruction of a bridge near their base in Southern Lebanon.
Anatoly Tsyganok, head of the Center for Military Forecasting, voiced confidence that the Army engineers would fulfill their mission but had doubts about their Chechen protectors, who he said were not trained in peacekeeping.

"Conducting negotiations, coordinating with local police -- these are difficult things," Tsyganok said.

The East and West battalions were formed during the second Chechen war, which began in late 1999, in an effort to rely more heavily on local recruits in operations against Chechen rebels.

The Lebanon mission appears to have proven popular with the Chechen troops.

Ruslan Musayev, an officer with the Interior Ministry's Chechnya branch, said soldiers vied for a handful of sought-after spots in the Lebanon contingent.

"Word had it that for three months in Lebanon, each soldier would get $5,000," Musayev said. "For that kind of money, a lot of people would agree to be sent to even more distant places."

Yusup Satuyev, a West battalion soldier now in Chechnya, suggested he and his comrades would like to take part in future missions abroad.

"We're one of the bravest peoples in the world," Satuyev said. "And we have tremendous experience in military actions, which we should share with others, but only in the interests of defense."

Timur Aliev contributed to this report from Grozny, and Carl Schreck contributed from Moscow.