MOSCOW, Oct 1 (AFP) - Chechnya marked the second anniversary of Russia's war against rebels in the breakaway republic amid fears that Moscow could exploit the US-led campaign against international terrorism to launch a fresh crackdown in the north Caucasus.
Human rights activists have criticised Russia for its apparent unwillingness to prosecute soldiers suspected of carrying out arbitrary arrests, torture and murder ever since Moscow launched its self-styled "anti-terrorist" campaign in Chechnya on October 1, 1999.
The Russian rights watchdog Memorial estimates that more than 400 children have been killed, and 2,000 others orphaned during the course of a brutal conflict that has seen the Chechen death toll rise to around 30,000, according to the rebel leadership.
But Memorial activist Eliza Musayeva warned Monday of a possible upsurge in human rights abuses in Chechnya if Russia launched a new offensive under the guise of joining the international alliance against terrorism in the wake of last month's attacks on New York and Washington.
"Since the attacks in the United States, the Chechens fear more than anything that the Western countries will ease up in their pressure on Russia," she said.
The two-year war was relegated to the bottom of the agenda at last week's parliamentary session of the Council of Europe, which adopted a "more measured position on Chechnya, according the Kremlin's human rights envoy Vladimir Kalamanov.
"If the Americans launch an anti-terrorist operation against Afghanistan, Russia could exploit the fact that the rest of the world is looking elsewhere to deliver a killer blow to the rebels, with little for the fallout among the civilian population," Musayeva said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, directly linked Monday events in Chechnya with the US-led campaign against international terrorism, in rejecting an offer by Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze to mediate the conflict.
Russia "would appreciate Georgian efforts contributing to the world campaign against international terrorism, in particular ... by taking measures to bar Chechen terrorists and mercenaries on its territory," he told AFP.
Unemployment, poverty and violence have become the staple ingredient of life in Chechnya's towns and villages, where many civilians are caught up in the crossfire between "mopping-up" raids carried out by Russian troops and the widespread use of landmines by the rebels, experts say.
Chechen lawyer Abdollah Khamzayev, who recently prosecuted a Russian army officer for the murder of an 18-year-old Chechen girl "cannot see how the situation in the republic could get any worse."
"The number of criminal investigations is ridiculous in comparison with the number of crimes that have been committed. Chechens cannot count on anything or anybody, least of all the Russian legal system," Khamzayev added.
Only 11 Russian soldiers have been convicted of crimes against Chechen civilians, while more than a thousand complaints have been registered with the authorities.
International observers have also highlighted the prolonged misery and suffering of around 140,000 Chechens who are preparing to spend their third winter in makeshift camps in the neighbouring Russian republic of Ingushetia.
"Their situation is all the more difficult as they do not have any hope of an end to the hostilities in the near future," said Jean Tissot, the head of the Danish Refugee Council in Ingushetia.
Nor are conditions much better for those who have fled the troubled north Caucasus and settled in Moscow only to be stopped and interrogated regularly by the city police because of their Chechen appearance, according to activists.
Russia launched its military intervention in the southern republic of Chechnya on October 1, 1999, after Moscow blamed Islamic separatists for a wave of terror attacks that killed almost 300 people in Russian cities.