- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 1, 2000

MOSCOW Russia proclaimed its war in Chechnya nearly over yesterday after troops seized the last major rebel stronghold in Chechnya, but local Russian officers warned that thousands of rebels had escaped and would return to fight again.

Col. Gen. Gennady Troshev, deputy commander of Russian forces in Chechnya, said his troops crushed rebel resistance in the town of Shatoi, formerly a separatist redoubt halfway up a key mountain gorge linking Chechnya with neighboring Georgia.

Russian forces now control the "main heights over the whole Argun gorge," Gen. Troshev said, insisting that the fall of Shatoi marked virtually the end of the war in Chechnya. "Of course, it will be another week or two or three to search for those who escaped or ran away [but] these are small groups, maybe groups of five or 12, but not more, he added.

Shatoi, the largest remaining base for the rebels, marked a strategic target that had eluded Russian forces during the disastrous 1994-96 attempt to seize control of the rebellious republic.

Russia then withdrew from Chechnya without capturing the Argun gorge or without breaching rebel defenses further south in Chechnya's mountainous border region.

But as soldiers raised the Russian tricolor on Shatoi's TV tower in a proclamation of victory, junior officers warned that the war was far from over.

They reported fierce fighting on the outskirts of Shatoi and in villages in the southern stretches of the gorge.

They claimed most of the estimated 2,000 to 4,000 rebels who had been defending the town escaped into nearby villages and forecast months of hit-and-run guerrilla warfare by the rebels.

"I'm just stunned by the helplessness of our military commanders. For how much longer will we be running around the mountains like goats?" said Capt. Mikhail Komarov.

Though acknowledging that the fall of Shatoi marked a grave setback for the rebels, Moscow-based independent military analysts also cautioned against a premature declaration of Russian victory.

They said that with as many as 6,000 rebels on the loose, Chechen commanders still had the potential to launch surprise attacks on Russian forces.

The fall of Shatoi came as freed Radio Liberty war reporter Andrei Babitsky, who was released yesterday by Russian authorities, claimed to have been beaten at a controversial Russian detention camp in northern Chechnya after first being arrested in January.

Mr. Babitsky, whose detention by Russian forces in Chechnya sparked protests inside Russia and abroad, said in a radio interview that Russian guards had beaten him on the chest with nightsticks during his incarceration in the Chernokozovo detention camp.

"I can say to you that at first I was not in the hands of the special security forces but of sadists who detained me at the Chernokozovo concentration camp," Mr. Babitsky said in the interview that was published on Radio Liberty's Internet site.

He added that camp inmates were routinely beaten but he had undergone only a light initiation.

"I don't consider what was done to me to be beating, because in Chernokozovo, beating is real torture," he said.

Human rights groups claim Chechen detainees at the camp have suffered beatings and homosexual rapes.

They also maintain that there have been summary executions at the center as well.

Western reporters who were allowed to visit the camp on Monday and yesterday saw no signs of ill-treatment and Russia authorities vigorously deny the allegations.

But according to some of the journalists, who were on the officially organized visit inmates said they were being treated well, but only when their guards could hear them.

Several inmates quietly, and in hushed tones, confirmed the claims of beatings and executions.

Mr. Babitsky's wife, Ludmilla, told The Washington Times yesterday that her husband would have more to say about his treatment by Russian authorities.

Meanwhile, last night the U.N. refugee agency said it was becoming increasingly concerned over reported widespread displacement and detention of men in the Argun gorge.

Refugees arriving in neighboring Ingushetia have told aid officials that "in the Argun district, all males aged 15 and older are detained by the local police for establishment of their identity," said Ron Redmond, spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

He added: "Some of these males had not returned from detention."

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