President Vladimir Putin sought to convince the West Monday that Russia was making progress in restoring order in Chechnya by switching command of the "anti-terrorist" operation to the secret services (FSB, formerly KGB).
Putin, a former KGB spy, decreed a partial reduction in the number of troops deployed against separatist rebels in Chechnya amid claims that the 15-month military campaign was reaching its endgame.
"This does not mean that the anti-terrorist operation is over, it will continue no less intensively, but with the accent on other forces and other means," Putin said.
"The purely anti-terrorist operation will be conducted from now on by the forces of the FSB, the ministry of interior, and special units of the ministry of defence," the Russian leader went on.
The Kremlin move to pull out troops and switch the high command in Chechnya from army generals to the head of the security service is a major turning point in Russia's efforts to "normalise" the long-running conflict.
It also signals Putin's confidence as a former spymaster-turned-president to entrust the secret services with key tasks facing his administration.
FSB director Nikolai Patrushev was now in charge of the Chechen campaign because the security service was "the key institution for combatting terrorism according to Russia's constitution," Putin said.
The president signed a decree Monday creating a new general staff, headed by Patrushev, "to direct anti-terrorist operations in the North Caucasus," the Kremlin told AFP.
Putin had given the secret service chief until May 15, 2001, to produce results in Chechnya under the new chain of command, the Kremlin said.
Interior Minister Vladimir Rushailo, Russian military chief General Anatoly Kvashnin and Putin's representative in the North Caucasus, Viktor Kazantsev would also sit on Patrushev's new committee, a statement said.
But there was no place at the top table for Russian Defence Minister Igor Sergeyev, who has been embroiled in a highly-publicised struggle with the military top brass in recent months.
Putin discussed the change of strategy at a meeting last Thursday with the leader of Chechnya's pro-Moscow administration, Akhmad Kadyrov, after which Kremlin aides talked up the accelerating pace of "normalisation" in Chechnya.
Russian secret agents would now hunt down rebel warlords, such as Shamil Basayev and Khattab, as well as separatist president Aslan Maskhadov, said the Kremlin's top spokesman on Chechnya, Sergei Yastrzhembsky.
Moscow's partial withdrawal of troops from Chechnya was one of the conditions demanded by the Strasbourg-based Council of Europe if Russia's voting rights at the 41-nation assembly were to be reinstated.
Putin's announcement came on the opening day of the January 22-26 winter session at the Council's parliamentary assembly (PACE) which is set to debate whether to lift Russia's voting suspension.
Last April, Russia became the first member in the Council of Europe's 50-year history to be stripped of its voting rights because of alleged human rights abuses committed by federal troops in Chechnya.
Russia has been steadily withdrawing its troops from Chechnya since pouring an estimated 100,000 soldiers into Chechnya on October 1, 1999.
Between 60,000 and 80,000 Russian troops are currently deployed in the North Caucasus republic.
However, despite seizing control of the republic's capital Grozny and other key centres a year ago, pro-Moscow soldiers and administrators continue to be subject to daily rebel attacks.
Chechen rebels killed at least five members of the Russian security forces in a weekend clash in Chechnya's second city of Gudermes, although separatist fighters claimed at least 20 Russian troops had died in the 10-hour gun battle.
Nevertheless Putin said Monday that there were no longer any large-scale hostilities in Chechnya and so there was no need for Russia to maintain its present force in the republic -- MOSCOW (AFP)
© 2001 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)