A day after the Russian military announced that the nine-month war in Chechnya was all but over, fighting flared up in forests in the south of the republic, prompting experts to say that the conflict is set to continue on some scale indefinitely.
About 100 rebels were killed in fighting outside the village of Serzhen-Yurt, including a close aide to rebel field commander Khattab, Russia's military commander in Chechnya, Gen. Gennady Troshev, told reporters Friday.
He said the fighters, who had been accumulating resources near the village for a long time, were completely defeated. Official sources put federal casualties at 15 dead and 29 injured. But Chechen rebels denied the reports, saying about 100 Russians were killed, while their own losses were substantially lower.
"Since the Russian military lists everyone killed by name, I am more inclined to trust the official sources," said Sergei Blagovolin, deputy director of the Institute of World Economy and International Relations at the Russian Academy of Science.
The fighting began Monday, when an Interior Ministry unit ran into a rebel group of about 150-200 Chechen fighters and Arab mercenaries, about 3.5 kilometers east of Serzhen-Yurt, Russian official sources said.
The day before, Troshev had said the war was almost over and the use of artillery and airstrikes would be scaled back. In the course of the subsequent fighting, Russian helicopter gunships and attack aircraft repeatedly bombarded the forests outside Serzhen-Yurt, where rebels are holing up.
While some observers disagreed, Blagovolin said the recent fighting didn't mean the beginning of a new phase in the military conflict in Chechnya. "I believe that all large-scale military operations in Chechnya are over, and it is typical when troops operate on a territory where there are armed fighters," he said. "Outbreaks of fighting of this kind will happen since such conflicts never end quickly."
He said that the 1996 Khasav-Yurt agreements did not end the previous conflict either, which continued outside Chechnya. The 1994-96 war in Chechnya ended in the humiliating withdrawal of federal troops, which experts say suffered about 10,000 losses.
Blagovolin said that future developments in Chechnya would largely hinge on a combination of the military operation against the rebels and political steps toward a resolution of the conflict. "How much fighting there will be in the future will depend on both the military and political components, upon how effective the newly appointed head of the republic [Mufti Akhmad] Kadyrov will be and how successful the federal authorities' efforts toward the restoration of normal life in Chechnya will be.
"As soon as people see that they are getting education, health care and other elements of normal life, there will be less reason for them to take up arms, and those who are now fighting with federal troops will find it more difficult to justify their actions" he said.
"The conflict will continue for some time, on and off," added Vladimir Kumachev, vice president of the Institute of National Security and Strategic Research. "A lot will depend upon how Russia solves its problems. At present, Russia cannot be an example for Chechnya. Therefore, even the most extremist forces in Chechnya have a good pretext to resist being part of Russia. If Russia ever has something to offer Chechnya as an example, there will be a chance to influence even the most radical anti-Russian forces," he said.
Official Russian sources have put federal losses at more than 2,300 since Russian troops combated an attack by Chechen rebels on the neighboring region of Dagestan last August, which led to the beginning of the second full-scale Chechen military campaign.