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Tuesday, 13 March, 2001, 19:42 GMT
Russia begins Chechnya pullout
Tank on railway wagon
A long line of armour left with the soldiers
In a ceremony marked by a brass band and camera crews Russian soldiers began the first official pullout from Chechnya since the present conflict.

The departure of the 3,500-odd men of the 74th Motor Rifle Guards Brigade and their vehicles was described by officials as a sign that stability had descended upon the region.

Mr Kadyrov and Gen Baranov
It is still the Russian military that runs Chechnya
But Chechen rebels dismissed the move as a mere rotation.

The Russian joint commander for the North Caucasus, Lt-Gen Valeriy Baranov, said Chechnya was "stable and stabilising", and the pro-Moscow regional leader, Akhmad Kadyrov, backed him up.

The Chechen rebels were in their "death throes" with their leaders well aware of the "pointlessness" of their fight, Mr Kadyrov told journalists at the farewell ceremony at Khankala railway station near Groznyy.

Memories of Chechnya

For the men of the 74th, boarding the train back to Kemerovo in Siberia, the only sure thing was they were going home after a marathon tour of duty in the North Caucasus.

Brought in to fight the Dagestan campaign in September 1999, they then spent two winters and a hot summer in Chechnya, always rushed to the thick of the fighting, as TV correspondents noted.

Eighty soldiers from the brigade were killed and 200 wounded.

The "dirt and the damp" had been the worst thing, some soldiers told reporters at the station.

But one soldier, Mikhail Takimov, said he would also have good memories:

Soldiers of the 74th Brigade
The soldiers have not seen home for 18 months

"The countryside here is beautiful, of course. We'll remember that. And there are people who welcome us, in spite of everything."

Another, artillery officer Aleksandr Melnik, spoke of more painful memories:

"There was all sorts of stuff. The cold , the hunger, the blood. But it's okay - we're alive and well. We had to lose a few."

Rebels unimpressed

Russian media have pointed out that plans to reduce army numbers do not affect the police and interior troop strength in Chechnya.

A top Russian military commander, Gen Gennadiy Troshev, said that Russia could afford to make the withdrawal.

"The troops that are being left here are sufficient to ensure an appropriate response to those who may try to act against the troops or civilians," he said.

A representative of outlawed Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov told a Moscow radio station that there could be no pullout because the fighting was not over.

"This is an ordinary rotation of military units and nothing else", Mayrbek Vachagayev told Ekho Moskvy, speaking from abroad.

This is an ordinary rotation of military units and nothing else

Chechen rebel spokesman Mayrbek Vachegayev

"We can hardly speak about any withdrawal of troops from Chechnya today. The military operation in Chechnya is not over."

Mr Vachagayev said that not only were there still rebel attacks on Russian forces, but they were even on the rise.

Whether or not that is true, all sides in Chechnya know that the hardest fighting comes after the spring when the leaves return to the trees, making conditions ideal for guerrilla warfare.

BBC Monitoring, based in Caversham in southern England, selects and translates information from radio, television, press, news agencies and the Internet from 150 countries in more than 70 languages.

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See also:

29 Nov 00 | Europe
Eyewitness: Chechnya's bitter war
01 Oct 00 | Europe
Analysis: Chechnya one year on
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