(c) 2009, Los Angeles Times
MOSCOW -- Russia on Thursday declared an end to its counter-terrorism operation in largely pacified Chechnya, lifting security restrictions that remained from a decade-old war that leveled towns and led to the death and disappearance of tens of thousands.
The announcement bolsters Russia's current strategy for normalizing life in the restive republic by transferring control to Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, a onetime rebel fighter who has switched his allegiances to the Kremlin. Kadyrov has brought relative calm to Chechnya, but human-rights monitors and critics say he has used kidnapping, torture and death to stamp out opponents and silence ordinary Chechens.
Kadyrov greeted the announcement with ebullience.
"We are extremely satisfied," the Chechen president told Interfax. "The modern Chechen republic is a peaceful and budding territory, which is confirmed by thousands of our guests, including politicians, businessmen, journalists and artists."
In a gesture of public celebration, Chechen officials held a free concert in Grozny, the capital once crushed by Russian bombs -- and now being resurrected with Kadyrov's dogged pursuit of cash from his Russian allies.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev ordered the operation ended in hopes of boosting economic development and reconstruction, government announced. The declaration would remove the Russian security forces' leeway to impose curfews and roadblocks, and it could lead to the withdrawal of 20,000 policemen and soldiers, Russian state media reported.
Russia launched a large-scale assault on Chechnya in 1999, wresting control of the breakaway republic from rebels in a protracted and bloody campaign. By 2000, a guerrilla war had taken hold, and scattered attacks continue.
But in recent years, as the fighting slowed, Russian soldiers increasingly kept to their bases, giving Kadyrov greater leeway to quiet the streets as he saw fit. Special forces units created for Chechnya were recently disbanded. Kadyrov told reporters that only a handful of insurgents remained.
On Thursday, critics pressed Russian authorities to investigate thousands of unsolved disappearances that took place during the Chechen wars and under Kadyrov's rule.
Alexander Cherkasov, an expert on the Caucasus for the human-rights group Memorial, downplayed the importance of the declaration. Russia called its military campaign an "anti-terrorist operation" in order to circumvent both national and international laws that would have come to bear in a declared war, he said.
"In Chechnya this situation lasted on a territory of many thousands of square kilometers, and for many years," he said. "Now, by dropping this false status, Russia technically returns the situation to normal."
^(Optional add end)<
Earlier this month, Dubai police linked Adam Delimkhanov, a Russian lawmaker and close associate of Kadyrov's, to the slaying of one of the Chechen president's bitter foes. The allegation comes amid a rash of assassinations of Chechens, both in Russia and abroad. Many of the victims have been enemies or critics of the Chechen president.
Kadyrov has denied involvement in the deaths.