Monday, 4 February 2008

Putin Makes Surprise Visit to Mountains

The Associated Press, February 4, 2008 - Washington Post

MAKHACHKALA, Russia (AP) — President Vladimir Putin on Monday visited a military unit in an area of the North Caucasus where fighting in 1999 led to the Chechen war that first propelled him to popularity.

Putin made the surprise trip to the mountains of violence-plagued Dagestan province, adjacent to Chechnya, at a time when he is maneuvering to retain power after next month's presidential elections. He is barred from running for a third consecutive term, but said he would become prime minister if his protege, Dmitry Medvedev, is elected president.

State-run television showed Putin speaking to soldiers in one of two brigades of mountain troops deployed last year in Russia's North Caucasus, near the country's southern border, under a decree he signed in 2006.

The brigade is based in Dagestan's Botlikh district, the site of armed incursions by Islamic militants from Chechnya in August 1999, the month President Boris Yeltsin named the relatively little-known Putin as his prime minister.

Russian forces entered Chechnya weeks after the attacks, starting the second of two post-Soviet wars in the mostly Muslim region and driving its separatist leadership from power. The new war was popular among Russians, in part because it followed deadly apartment-building bombings blamed on Chechen rebels, and Putin's tough stance boosted his image. Yeltsin stepped down in December 1999 and ceded the presidency to Putin, who was elected the following March.

Putin also visited Botlikh in 1999. On Monday, accompanied by several Cabinet ministers, he met with local officials there and discussed economic issues of interest in Dagestan, the ITAR-Tass news agency reported. The poor province is troubled by violence linked to the conflict in Chechnya, a police crackdown on Islamic militancy and internal disputes and power struggles.

While major fighting died down in Chechnya years ago and the region is controlled by a Kremlin-backed government, militant attacks and alleged abuses of civilians by government forces have increased in surrounding provinces in the North Caucasus.

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