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Tensions in Chechnya Boil Over

Sulim Yamadayev, left, and Kadyrov attending the dedication of Akhmad Kadyrov Prospekt in December 2006. Murat Kazbekov
The standoff between Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov and an influential Chechen clan entered the third day Wednesday as both sides traded accusations of murder and abuse of power.

There were conflicting reports regarding the number of casualties suffered by the two sides since a collision Monday near the Chechen town of Argun between Kadyrov??s motorcade and vehicles transporting serviceman from the Defense Ministry??s elite Vostok battalion.

Regardless of casualties, the confrontation is a clear sign of the ongoing power struggle in the often violent world of Chechen politics, which Kadyrov is trying to monopolize.

The conflict has pitted Kadyrov against brothers Sulim, Ruslan and Badruddi Yamadayev, former Chechen rebels who lead a powerful clan based in Gudermes, Chechnya??s second largest city.

??This standoff, and the fact that the Yamadayevs are not giving ground easily, is a signal to Kadyrov that he should not think he is the only one calling the shots in the republic,?? said Alexei Malashenko, senior expert on the Caucasus at the Carnegie Moscow Center. ??There are powerful people in [federal] power agencies that do not like the way he runs things, and they will side with the Yamadayevs.??

Ousting Sulim Yamadayev from the Vostok battalion, which he commands, would allow Kadyrov to complete his consolidation of power in the republic by putting his loyalists in charge of all of local police and the Defense and Interior ministries?? local commando units, which are manned primarily by ethnic Chechens.

Such a takeover has been resisted by top commanders in Moscow, who do not trust the former rebels that have fought alongside their troops in Chechnya, according to national media reports.

Their suspicions are shared by hard-line policymakers who fear that giving complete control of Chechnya to former rebels could allow the republic to slip out of Moscow??s hands should a national crisis arise.

Kadyrov??s goal is to make himself irreplaceable after his chief backer, President Vladimir Putin, leaves office next month, experts said. The president has the power to hire and fire regional leaders.

The Yamadayevs clearly enjoy support of top military brass, who do not want Kadyrov to install his own people in Interior and Defense ministry units, which answer to Moscow.

With the exception of Vostok, Kadyrov??s men call the shots in all of the Defense and Interior ministries?? local commando units, including the Yug and Sever commando battalions, which report to the Interior Ministry, and the Zapad battalion, which reports to the Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff.

Kadyrov, himself a former rebel, has managed to oust the head of the special Operational and Search Bureau No. 2, which answers directly to the Interior Ministry??s main headquarters, and arrange the disbanding of the elite Gorets commando unit, which had answered to the Federal Security Service.

The former commander of the Gorets unit, Movladi Baisarov, was charged with kidnappings and killings and subsequently shot and killed in Moscow last year by Chechen police officers from Grozny.

Following Monday??s car collisions, Kadyrov made similar allegations against the Yamadayev brothers and the Vostok battalion, accusing them of murders, kidnappings and torture.

Vostok, which answers to the Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff, is the only Chechen-manned unit in the republic not headed by a Kadyrov loyalist. Sulim Yamadayev is the battalion??s commander, while Ruslan Yamadayev is a former State Duma deputy representing Chechnya.

Badruddi Yamadayev is a platoon commander in the Vostok battalion.

Kadyrov arranged for Ruslan Yamadayev to be replaced on the ticket of pro-Kremlin party United Russia in the Dec. 2 State Duma elections in an effort to further sideline the Yamadayev clan.

As for the Vostok battalion, several of its platoons were ordered by Chechen authorities to vacate the premises they were occupying, Kommersant reported Wednesday.

The Monday car collision set off a chain of events that could lead to complete marginalization of the Yamadayev clan should Kadyrov succeed in convincing the Kremlin to have Sulim Yamadayev either fired or reassigned and Yamadayev loyalists removed from the Vostok battalion.

In interviews with national media, Vostok servicemen blamed Kadyrov for the collision. Video footage of Kadyrov??s motorcade posted on YouTube last month showed some 50 luxury cars traveling at very high speed.

After the collision, the two sides exchanged gunfire before the Vostok convoy, led by platoon commander Badruddi Yamadayev, finally ceded to Kadyrov??s motorcade.

Kadyrov subsequently ordered police and his loyalists in the Yug and Sever battalions to surround Vostok??s base in Gudermes and set up checkpoints, Kommersant reported.

Local prosecutors then opened a case against Badruddi Yamadayev, charging him with preventing a public official from carrying out his duties, and a warrant was issued for his arrest.

Two Vostok servicemen were shot dead after being detained at the checkpoints around their base, sources in the battalion told the Rosbalt news agency Tuesday.

Reuters on Wednesday cited one unidentified witness as saying that at least 18 people, including servicemen and civilians, died in a shootout following the collision.

Deputy Defense Minister Vladimir Shamanov said Wednesday that there was a showdown but denied reports of bloodshed.

??They merely brandished their weapons, so there were no casualties in this clash,?? Shamanov, who has led federal forces in Chechnya and is now in charge of combat training at the ministry, told Interfax.

The armed standoff at the Vostok base lasted several hours before Chechen police and military prosecutors were allowed to enter to search for Badruddi Yamadayev, whom they were unable to locate, Kommersant reported.

Police searched the Yamadayev??s estate in Gudermes on Wednesday and found unlicensed weapons and dozens of cases of ammunition, Interfax reported.

Kadyrov claimed Wednesday that many commandos in the Vostok battalion had never formally entered the military or obtained official permits to carry weapons, Interfax reported.

If convicted of interfering with the duties of a public servant, Badruddi Yamadayev, who was once convicted of trying to kill a senior Moscow health official but had the conviction overturned, faces up to five years in prison.

The Yamadayev clan helped Kadyrov??s father, former Chechen President Akhmad Kadyrov, establish control of Chechnya in the aftermath of the second Chechen war. Akhmad Kadyrov was assassinated in a bomb attack in Grozny at a Victory Day celebration on May 9, 2004.

In separate statements on the Chechen government??s web site Wednesday, Vostok commanders were accused of multiple kidnappings, murders and torture, including the abduction of the republic??s human rights ombudsman. The headline on one of the statements read: ??Chechen Human Rights Activists Condemn the Actions of the Vostok Battalion.??

Another statement quoted Magomed Khanbiyev, a former defense minister in the Chechen rebel government and now a deputy in the republic??s pro-Moscow parliament, as backing the rights activists?? censure of the battalion.

??Of course, there might be normal soldiers in this battalion, but most of them do drugs, commit murders and kidnap people, thus scorning our traditions,?? Khanbiyev was quoted as saying.

It was unclear why Kadyrov, whose own loyalists are regularly accused of similar crimes by human rights groups such as Memorial, unveiled the accusations only after Monday??s fender bender and subsequent clashes.

One of the two sides may have decided to make a move during the transition period in which Putin, Kadyrov??s patron, is preparing to transfer power to President-elect Dmitry Medvedev, said Malashenko, of the Carnegie Moscow Center. Both Putin and Medvedev support Kadyrov but are currently preoccupied with the handover ahead of Medvedev??s May 7 inauguration, he said.

??In reality, it is Kadyrov who is probably right?? in this dispute, Kadyrov aide Timur Aliyev said Wednesday.

The Vostok servicemen ??leave a trail of crime behind them while also doing the dirty work for the security services,?? he said in e-mailed comments.

Kadyrov has long urged top military brass to ??get rid of the Yamadayevs?? by perhaps offering them posts outside the republic, Aliyev said. The Yamadayevs?? ambitions go beyond military service, and they are trying ??to oust Kadyrov through Kremlin intrigues,?? he said.

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