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Russian backlash against Chechens begins

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Refugees are streaming out of Chechnya, after a long period of relative stability, he adds.

Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov on Tuesday announced that his forces have received the Kremlin's approval to hit terrorist bases and personnel abroad, much as the US did this week when it killed six suspected Al Qaeda leaders with a missile-firing unmanned drone in Yemen. Mr. Ivanov said that Russia is also developing high-precision weapons for such purposes, capable of dealing "extensive destruction" over large distances.

"This may seem surprising, but a war has been virtually declared on us," Mr. Ivanov said. "It has neither fronts, nor borders, nor a visible enemy. But war it is."

The immediate object of the new policy is likely to be Georgia, a former Soviet Caucasus republic which Moscow has long accused of harboring terrorist forces from neighboring Chechnya and even Al Qaeda members.

Many experts say that, with the winter loss of foliage cover in mountainous Chechnya, some fighters may drift across the border to areas such as the Pankisi Gorge, where they rest before returning to battle in the spring. Georgia insists that recent security operations have brought this lawless area under control – a claim Moscow derides.

"What is Georgia?" says Mr. Nikonov. "It is a failed state that controls nothing on its own territory."

But Moscow's hand has been stayed, at least so far, by clear US warnings not to interfere in independent Georgia. American Special Forces have been in Georgia since March, training a special antiterrorist unit of local forces to deal with security problems like the Pankisi Gorge. Whatever the merits of Moscow's case against Chechen rebels, there are suspicions that the Kremlin is using the issue to intimidate pro-Western Georgian leader Eduard Shevardnadze and promote its own neoimperial interests in the region.

"A Russian military strike against Georgia would probably not have much effect on Chechens, since they seem pretty good at hiding," says Dmitri Furman, an expert with the official Institute of European Studies in Moscow. "But it might serve as a kind of demonstration to Shevardnadze that it's not a good idea to defy Russia."

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