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Chechen peace amid gunfire

Life goes on but gunfire echoes around Grozny
Life goes on but gunfire echoes around Grozny

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Just six weeks ago, Chechen rebels took 700 people hostage in a daring terror attack on a Moscow theatre that would end with 128 hostages dead, many as a result of the Russian rescue effort.

But why should the wider world worry? CIA director George Tenet says Chechnya is breeding a new generation of terrorists who threaten the west, just as many Afghanistan-bred fighters in the 1970s and 80s went on to become foot soldiers for al Qaeda.

CNN's Jill Dougherty joins a rare Russian military tour, which took her more than 1,000 miles south from Moscow to Chechnya's capital, Grozny, for an extraordinary glimpse of life in a city that is officially at peace, but where the gunfire is heard round-the-clock.

Chechnya is one of the Russian Federation's 21 republics and the site of a vigorous rebellion against Russian rule.

Chechen rebels have fought on-and-off since 1994 for independence, often using tactics of terrorism to make their point. The Russian military concedes thousands of its soldiers have been killed in the fighting to suppress the independence movement.

In the Chechen capital, Grozny, peace is the smell of diesel fuel and the rumble of tanks and armoured personnel carriers.

Other trucks spew out smoke screens to make it harder for the rebels to shoot down helicopters with heat-seeking missiles.

Swat teams from the Interior Ministry accompanied me on the three day Russian Government sponsored tour.

They are men who seem as if they were born with a Kalashnikov at their side.

But in Chechnya, everyone seems to be armed -- defence ministry troops, interior ministry troops, riot police, local police, and the Chechen rebels hiding in the mountains. All also wear camouflage.

As we travel the streets of Grozny, past row upon row of destroyed apartment buildings and through police checkpoints, our government guides tell us: "The second Chechen war is over. It officially ended in April.

Russian federal forces now control the republic, they say. Things, they say, are slowly coming back to normal.

But at a roadside stand, one of the merchants tells a different story.

Trader Raia Baibatereva said: "Right here it's not dangerous. We know if we come to work here we'll get back ok. But in the centre of the city it's 50/50. They're blowing up buses, putting bombs under cars, there are shootouts."

Returning home

Our "home" for two nights is the base of the 46th brigade of the Russian interior ministry both nights we hear the sound of gunfire and shelling.

When daylight comes 20 teams of sappers patrol the city's streets, as they do every morning, clearing mines laid by rebel fighters the night before.

It is, they say, a sign of progress. There used to be 30 terrorist acts a day-- now there are only one or two.

Some residents of Grozny lived through two wars here. Others fled to refugee camps but now, the Russian Government is closing those camps, and urging residents to return to Chechnya.

That is what Lilia Alkhazorova did. After three years in the camps, she moved into temporary government housing in Grozny seven months ago. There's still no running water. There is gas for cooking but the stove is shared by two families.

"Yes, they're shooting, people go missing, they're taken off to places, people come in the middle of the night. Yes, that all happens, but somehow you just hope it will get better and all of this will stop. It is dangerous - but no one can guarantee our safety," she says.

'People going missing' is a phrase you hear over and over again in Chechnya.

Chechen men, rounded up by federal forces during so-called "zachistki" -- "cleansing operations" -- searches for suspected terrorists. Some are never seen again, say human rights workers in the area.

As we drive through the streets, our bus is swarmed by women protestors holding up pictures of missing men with signs that read: "Give us back our Chechen sons!"

Our government minders won't let us off the bus to talk with them. "It's too dangerous", they tell us, "they could have bombs under their skirts".

What's more, they say, the women are being paid by rebels to demonstrate. One woman, they say, is even videotaping it for the rebels

The Russian military concede there are scattered cases of soldiers abusing their authority but it is often the rebels, they say, who take the men away. Many cases of missing men, they say, are simply invented.

Progress in Grozny is represented by one building, in the midst of all this chaos and destruction, that is being brought back to life.

Four others are being restored, more is promised but many houses will simply have to be levelled.

Grozny's TV station is back on the air, broadcasting two hours a day, and at the military commissar's headquarters young Chechen men are drafted into the Russian army.

It's a way for some, whose education was cut short by war to learn a skill, we're told but it's also a way, Moscow hopes, to shield teens from the lure of radical Islam.

"They're children of Russia", the commander says. "They know their duty".

Under the watchful eye of his commander, 22-year-old Timur Saltamerzaev says simply: "We need peace. We're tired of war -- we're just tired."

The war is over, the Russian Government says. It's just that here in Chechnya everything -- even peace -- is relative.



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