Chechens down chopper as Moscow steps up offensive

  • 2002-11-07

Chechen rebels shot down a Russian helicopter Nov. 3, killing all nine soldiers on board, officials said, just as Russia intensified its battle against armed separatists and dropped plans for a partial withdrawal from the breakaway republic.

The MI-8 helicopter was struck by a ground-to-air missile fired from a building near the Chechen capital Grozny, Interfax quoted Boris Podoprigora, deputy commander of Russian forces in Chechnya, as saying.

News of the attack came shortly after Russia said it had dropped plans to withdraw some of its troops from Chechnya, instead stepping up operations after intelligence suggested rebels were planning attacks on Russian targets along the lines of last month's theater attack in Moscow.

"Over the past days, we've been receiving information that guerrillas based in Chechnya -- and not only Chechnya -- are preparing new terrorist acts," Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov told Interfax earlier in the day.

"I have made a decision to interrupt plans to reduce the number of troops in Chechnya. Starting today, our military has begun a broad, tough but well-conceived special military operation across the whole of Chechnya."

Ivanov's announcement contradicted his own comments on Nov. 1, when he said some of Russia's 80,000 troops in Chechnya would be withdrawn as planned, despite the October theater siege in which 119 hostages died after being held by Chechen rebels armed with explosives and automatic weapons.

Military helicopters are favorite targets of Chechen rebels, who brought down another chopper last week, killing four people just days after the dramatic ending of the Moscow hostage crisis in which most of the 119 casualties died from gas sprayed into the theater by Russian special forces to subdue the Chechen rebels.

Last August, Chechens shot down a military transport helicopter near the Russian headquarters in Chechnya, killing 121 people.

Ivanov's latest announcement came shortly after top Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev, who claimed responsibility for the Moscow attack, warned in a statement that he was preparing to "bring the war back home" to Russia.

The attack also coincided with an apparent new alliance between Basayev and Aslan Maskhadov, who was elected president of Chechnya in 1997 and had been viewed as a more moderate rebel leader who could represent the republic at peace negotiations with Moscow.

Now, Moscow has stepped up pressure on the United States to add Chechen rebel groups to its terrorist blacklist, describing the issue as a test of the international coalition against terrorism.

The theater attack was the most deadly within Russia during the three-year Chechen war.

It threatened to deliver a serious political setback to President Vladimir Putin, who launched the Chechen war while serving as prime minister in October 1999.

The conflict has already claimed the lives of 4,500 troops and between 10,000 and 20,000 Chechen civilians, according to official figures.

But Chechen representatives put the civilian death toll much higher, claiming that over 100,000 Chechens have died.