Tensions between Chechnya and Russia have existed for centuries: from Muslim uprisings against Russian power in the 19th century to the purges of Chechnya's population by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in the 1940s, the two sides have a long history of conflict and violence.
On the Russian side, the military has been accused of the abduction, torture and murder of Chechen civilians. A particular tactic that watchdogs have targeted is Russia's zachistki, or "cleansing" campaigns, in which Russian troops descend on a village and perform a "sweep" to root out militants in hiding. Such operations have allegedly led to looting, kidnapping and other crimes.
On the other side, Chechens have been charged with employing tactics such as laying mines, assassinating officials, kidnapping, taking hostages and using civilians as human shields.
The U.S. criticized the Russian campaign in Chechnya. Citing reports by international observers of massive human rights violations against the Chechen people, the U.S. government pushed Russia to seek a political solution to end the conflict.
The Russian military has been accused of a wide range of crimes and abuses: torture, rape, looting, executions, extortion and abductions, among others. Even as those crimes have been documented by the international press and human rights organizations, few cases have been pursued in the Russian courts or aired in the national media.
"The process by which young Chechen men are being abducted and murdered...is on a huge scale in a world context," says Aaron Rhodes, the executive director of the International Helsinki Foundation, a human rights group.
Furthermore, Chechen officials maintain their denials of links to international terrorism. "We resolutely reject terror as a method for achieving any goals," says Maskhadov.
"The Chechens are not Al Qaeda, and Putin must not be allowed to pretend they are. The only way to redeem the suffering of the victims of terror is by working for negotiations that will bring about peace," argues the Nation, a liberal magazine, in an unsigned editorial.
In late October 2002, a group of some 50 armed Chechen militants stormed a Moscow theater and held more than 750 people hostage, bringing a new turn to the conflict. The militants threatened to kill hostages and set off explosives unless Russia withdrew its forces from Chechnya. The Russian government refused to meet the demands. On the fourth day of the siege, Russian forces stormed the theater, killing most of the militants as well as some 120 hostages.
Observers agree that both sides have committed their share of atrocities.
As Russia gears up for an escalation of its offensive, it seems that the protracted conflict in Chechnya is destined to continue at least into the near future.
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