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Are Chechens in Afghanistan?

Reports that Chechen rebels and even one of their leaders, Khattab, have been fighting with the Taliban in Afghanistan have surfaced throughout the U.S.-led military campaign. But the reports have been sketchy and poorly substantiated, leaving Russian observers to speculate on how many Chechens are likely to be in Afghanistan and why.

The differences in opinion seem based on different evaluations of the strength of ties between Chechens fighting for independence in Chechnya and Islamic radicals with a global cause.

Most, but not all, experts on the region say there are unlikely to be large numbers of Chechens in Afghanistan, and that Khattab's presence there seems even less likely. Any Chechens fighting with the Taliban are probably motivated primarily by money, the experts say.

"There is no reason for Chechens to go to fight in Afghanistan because the ideological basis for resistance for the majority of the rebels is defending their own land," said Timur Muzayev of the Panorama think tank, who was an adviser to the Chechen government from 1995 to 1996. "And those Chechens who view themselves as religious warriors against the infidels can also nicely defend their faith in Chechnya, without going anywhere else."

Another Chechen insider, Khozh-Akhmed Nukhayev, who was widely believed to be a confidant and private banker of first Chechen President Dzhokhar Dudayev, also said it was absurd for Chechens to be fighting in Afghanistan -- because the Taliban does not need them.

There is no shortage of fighters in Afghanistan, which essentially already has been at war for 23 years, and a few dozen Chechens could provide little help to the Taliban, he wrote on his web site, Noukhaev.com.

Muzayev agreed. "The strength of the Taliban in Afghanistan is the same as that of the Chechen rebels in Chechnya: knowledge of the local situation and the support of the local population," he said. "Guerrillas lose efficiency on alien soil."

Even so, a few Chechens may be fighting in Afghanistan as mercenaries, Muzayev said. Alexander Pikayev, a military expert at the Moscow Carnegie Center, said the numbers might be slightly higher, perhaps a few dozen.

"There were numerous reports about the Taliban permitting Chechen rebels to train in military camps on the territory of Afghanistan," Pikayev said. "And many rebels, forced out of Chechnya in the ongoing conflict, could have chosen to go to Central Asia or Afghanistan, rather than to Georgia or Turkey."

Viktor Korgun, head of the Afghanistan section of the Moscow-based Institute of Oriental Studies, however, said the number of Chechens at the beginning of the U.S. operation could have exceeded 1,000.

"There is some indirect but sufficient evidence of Chechen rebels being active in Afghanistan," Korgun said. "President Vladimir Putin's threatening the Taliban in May 2000 to bomb the terrorist camps on Afghan territory where large groups of Chechen rebels were trained is one of them."

The Taliban was the only government in the world to recognize Chechnya as a state, and in February 2000, the Chechen separatist government of President Aslan Maskhadov opened an embassy in Kabul. The rebels' chief ideologist, Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, was appointed ambassador.

"Undoubtedly, the embassy was set up to build up military cooperation between Chechen rebels and the Taliban," Korgun said

But he also said the Chechen rebels fighting in Afghanistan were attracted mainly by the money Osama bin Laden is believed to pay.

In recent weeks, there have been various reports that Khattab, an Arab, has ties to bin Laden and was in Afghanistan fighting with him.

General Gennady Troshev, the commander of Russian troops in the North Caucasus, and the Federal Border Guard Service insisted Khattab had not left Chechnya. Although Khattab's presence in Afghanistan might serve to bolster the Kremlin's claims that it is fighting Islamic terrorism in Chechnya, the military might be afraid it would look foolish if it let Khattab slip away.

For their part, the Chechen rebels have said the reports of Chechens in Afghanistan are inspired by Western governments eager to cement the alliance with Russia. No one "is able to produce even one Chechen as proof of the 'participation of hundreds and thousands of Chechen fighters' in the war in Afghanistan," the rebel web site Kavkaz.org said.

Political observers said they see political motives behind reports of Chechen rebels fighting with the Taliban.

"The West is interested in dragging Russia into the war now as the ground operation is unfolding," said Pikayev of Carnegie. "The publications that link bin Laden to the Chechen rebels are to demonstrate to the world that Russia and the West are jointly opposing Islamic terrorism."

Alexander Iskandarian, head of the Institute of Caucasian Studies in Moscow, said he sees another motive.

"Massaging the news about foreign fighters is a well-known propagandist technique to prove that the core of the resistance has no popular origin," he said. "This helps them pretend that they are opposed not by the Afghan people, but by an international evil."

Jordanian-born warlord Khattab was reportedly wounded in a battle with federal troops near the village of Nikotakhoi in the Vedeno region of Chechnya about a week ago, Itar-Tass quoted law enforcers as saying Thursday.

Khattab received shoulder and leg wounds and is being treated in a mountain village in southeastern Chechnya, the sources said.

Russian officials, including Akhmad Kadyrov, head of the Chechen administration, dismissed the report as rumor.

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