Associated France Press (AFP) 13/12/2005
Putin in surprise flash visit to new Chechen parliament
Russian President Vladimir Putin used a surprise lightening visit to the Chechen capital Grozny to promise the war-weary province an end to the kidnapping of civilians and a rebuilding of the devastated capital.
Putin arrived on Monday at the region’s recently elected pro-Moscow parliament by helicopter amid tight secrecy and security provided by rings of soldiers. He stayed for about 40 minutes, before his delegation flew out again in a pair of Mi-8 helicopters.
He said that everything must be done to "cut out the phenomenon connected with the kidnapping of people. Find and punish whoever is breaking the law, regardless of who this might be or what structure they represent," he was quoted as saying by Interfax news agency.
Hundreds of people have disappeared in Chechnya during 11 years of conflict pitting separatist and Islamic rebels against Russia’s military -- most of the victims being civilians or men suspected of links to the rebels.
In a message of hope, mixed with vows to crush any further resistance, Putin also urged the rebuilding of Grozny, once a major industrial centre and home to almost half a million people that Russian artillery and aerial bombardments have turned into a ghostly sprawl of ruins.
"We have arrived at a time when it is necessary to start restoring Grozny," he said. "Now we can really start resolving this problem."
Putin reached out to Chechens, who suffered mass deaths in Stalin’s repressions, saying that "everything must be done so that tragic events are not repeated."
He attacked the Muslim insurgents active in the Chechen underground forces, saying that "Russia has always been the most faithful, reliable, consistent defender of the Muslim world."
"People who tried in a deformed way to interpret the Koran absolutely did not represent the people of the North Caucasus."
The visit was not announced previously and no Russian media immediately reported Putin’s movements, underlining the need for secrecy in a place where Russian soldiers still die weekly, despite Putin’s repeated claims that the more than decade-old conflict is over.
Parliamentary elections were held in Chechnya on November 27, with the pro-Kremlin United Russia party winning a majority -- proof, Moscow said, that this tiny homeland of the Muslim Chechens has been pacified.
Russian and foreign human rights groups described the election as a propaganda trick, while the Council of Europe’s rapporteur on Chechnya, Andreas Gross, said that despite the election real power was concentrated in the hands of pro-Moscow warlord Ramzan Kadyrov, who is deputy premier in the Caucasus republic and head of a powerful paramilitary group.
Chechnya declared independence in 1991 and in a 1994-96 war defeated an attempt by then Russian president Boris Yeltsin to reestablish control. The conflict left tens of thousands of civilians dead and destroyed much of Grozny and nearly the entire economic infrastructure of the province.
A second war was launched at the end of 1999, just as Putin rose from obscurity to succeed Yeltsin in the Kremlin. Russian troops and their Chechen paramilitary allies control most of the republic but continue to suffer losses against increasingly radicalised Muslim insurgents.
About 10,000 Russian servicemen have died in the fighting since 1994, according to official figures, with human rights groups estimating the true number to be at least 20,000. As many as 100,000 civilians are estimated to have died, according to various independent sources.