The rebel effort in Chechnya has been taking a beating in March. The rebels have been without a central command lately, and warlords Aslan Maskhadov and Shamil Basyev rarely on radio to communicate with their sub-elements. Scattered rebel groups have funds and forces only to organize annoying terrorist acts with explosive devices. The rebels typically employ teenagers to actually plant the mines and pay $10 to $30 per mine.
In the first full week of March, the rebels scaled up their mining activities on roads, especially those used by Federal military convoys. The rebel pattern has apparently been to trigger their mines in between the Russians' field engineer patrols' regular road inspections, mostly during the day. They blasted 10 vehicles during the week, including several on the road between Msker-Yurt and Argun. On 4 March alone, six federal troops were wounded in two attacks by radio-controlled land mine blasts.
On the 10th, the rebels triggered a controlled landmine under an UAZ truck and killed four policemen, members of a composite unit returning to their permanent stationing area from a military base in Khankala. The Federals found that the radio-controlled landmine was made from a 152mm artillery shell and subsequently detained four suspects in Grozny's Oktyabrsky district.
Taking into account rebel tactics, Russian engineer patrols started making secondary checks of convoy routes and crowded areas. Federal sappers involved in engineering intelligence found over 170 explosive devices, including 17 powerful command detonated mines, during the first ten days of March. Federal patrols also exposed 13 arms and ammunition caches during the first weekend of March, based on information from rebels detained earlier. The caches contained 115 artillery shells and 18.5kg of explosives, as well as large amounts of arms and cartridges.
However, the skills of some rebel sapper units seem to have suffered. On 7 March, an Interior Ministry headquarters soldier was only injured by a radio-controlled mine blast under his UAZ jeep at a Grozny intersection because "the action of the landmine was not controlled". Federal sappers defused two other explosive devices in the Grozny's Zavodskoy district in time.
At 13:00 Moscow Time on 11 March, rebels prematurely fired a command detonated mine at a Ural truck was crossing the Sunzha River bridge near the 14th checkpoint. The blast, just before the vehicle entered the blast area, damaged the vehicle's windshield and fender. The servicemen riding in the truck were not hurt. A search failed to find the bombers.
The rebels also detonated a mine on a Aksai River bridge near the Nozhai-Yurt district's Betti-Mokhk village, but the 11 March blast caused no damage to the structure.
The Gudermes Federal Security Service (FSB) department, assisted by composite quick response formations and the Gudermes district military prosecutor's office, broke up a rebel cell on the 11th and found seven TNT charges, an electric detonator, an antipersonnel mine, five flashlights and six radio batteries in the house of a detainee. Subsequent interrogations revealed the address of an rebel landmine production shop and a search resulted in the discovery of detonators, a fuse and some radio components for a controlled explosive devices.
FBS agents involved in search operations found and defused seven more command detonated landmines made from 122mm artillery HE shells. Across Chechnya, Federal servicemen also detained 36 people suspected of mining roads and firing at federal military positions. They seized 18 mines from locals on the 11th and defused two homemade explosive devices when carrying out search operations in Grozny.
First Deputy Chief-of-Staff of the Russian Armed Forces Yuri Baluyevsky told journalists in Washington that up to 1,500 rebels were fighting federal troops in Chechnya - including around 250 mercenaries from the CIS and other countries. Baluyevsky listed "up to 400 militants from Khattab's group, about 350 militants of Shamil Basayev's group and some 150 fighters of Maskhadov's group constitute the backbone of the bandit movements," as well as "two gangs led by Akhmadov and Salamov total 100 militants each".
He stressed that most of the rebels in Chechnya were determined to continue long-term armed resistance and that an important factor that likely to influence the situation in Chechnya was that Georgian mountain passes will become passable in late April or early May. This would allow up to 400 more Chechen rebels and mercenaries to infiltrate into Chechnya.
The rebel leadership has recently taken a beating. In 2001-2002, 11 Sharia military council members and 20 field commanders were identified and eliminated. Russian tactics have become more focused, using combined special operations groups and SIGINT to roll up small bands, one by one. - Adam Geibel