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Chechen Peace Hit by Provocations

Murders, kidnappings seen threatening peace process, elections

In Chechnya, treating guests well is considered a matter of honor. So shame and disgust have been the reaction of most people here to Tuesday's nighttime attack on a hospital outside Grozny that left six Red Cross workers dead and another wounded.

"The people who did this did not just kill our friends," says one grief-stricken Chechen nurse who works at the hospital in Noviye Atagi where the murders took place. "They killed us as well - our pride, our honor, and our hospitality."

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While no one has claimed responsibility for the Red Cross murders, many observers see this and other recent attacks on Russians and foreigners alike as concerted attempts to derail August's peace agreement, as well as the upcoming elections in Chechnya, scheduled for Jan. 27.

Last week's kidnapping of 22 Russian soldiers by a rogue Chechen field commander has been regarded as one such attempt. Although the soldiers were freed on Wednesday, the ITAR-Tass news agency has reported a separate kidnapping in which a delegation from North Ossetia is being held hostage near the Chechen village of Znamenskoye for a $6 million ransom. In addition, six middle-aged Russians were shot and killed in their central Grozny homes by masked gunmen Wednesday.

Among Chechens, the tendency is to blame Russian intelligence agents for the Red Cross murders, in what they say is a deliberate effort to provoke chaos in the republic now that the last Russian troops are withdrawing.

"It is perfectly possible that a group controlled by the [pro-Moscow] Chechen opposition ... or the Federal Security Service [the former KGB] was involved," says Bakha Zakriev, deputy interior minister of the independence-minded Chechen rebel government.

The brutal murders and the fearful speculation that they have engendered have dimmed hopes that Chechnya's presidential and parliamentary elections, scheduled for Jan. 27, will go off smoothly.

Nineteen candidates have registered for the presidential campaign, which the Chechen authorities hastily called in a bid to solidify their autonomy from Moscow in the wake of the peace agreement signed in August.

Both local and foreign observers here have expressed concerns that terrorist provocations might be used to derail the upcoming elections or call their legitimacy into question. Those fears were only deepened Wednesday, when news spread of the six murders in central Grozny.

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"There is a chain of logic which links the killings to other recent events," says Zenon Kuchciak, deputy chief of the local office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Two OSCE representatives were recently kidnapped, although they were later released unharmed. "These acts may indeed be intended to destabilize the political situation ... by scaring away foreigners," Mr. Kuchciak speculates.

That, at any rate, has been the result of the Red Cross killings. Survivors of the Noviye Atagi attack left Chechnya within hours of their colleagues' deaths. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees announced yesterday that following this terrible event it had "ceased its activities in Chechnya until further notice."

Other international aid organizations helping to care for victims of the two-year war or to rebuild Chechnya's shattered infrastructure are either pulling out of the North Caucasus region or scaling back their operations. The OSCE, which plans to monitor next month's elections, may also withdraw its personnel if further terrorist attacks follow in the wake of this week's events, Kuchciak warns.

The prospect of a complete pullout by international organizations worries many Chechens, who see their presence here as a bulwark against Moscow's political ambitions in Chechnya.

"The Red Cross workers were killed for one reason," says Adlan Khasanov, a Chechen journalist. "So that the world would see it and say that we were all bandits to begin with - that it is better just to trust the Russians to deal with us as they see fit."

That line of thinking emerged quickly in Moscow. The government-run Rossiskaya Gazeta daily said the Kremlin should rethink its agreement to let Chechens hold elections. "After such news, one is forced to pose the question: Were we right to pull our troops out of Chechnya?" the paper wrote on Wednesday.

Moscow has condemned the murders, calling them acts of terror committed by trained professionals for political ends. The Kremlin has ordered the police to investigate the crime.

Chechen law-enforcement officials, meanwhile, claim to have leads that will help them solve the Red Cross killings within the next few days. Chechen Prime Minister Aslan Maskhadov says his government "will do everything possible to see that the murderers are severely punished as soon as possible."

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