KABUL: They have been the stuff of nightmares for Russian troops and now US forces face the prospect of trying to combat Chechen fighters in Afghanistan who have thrown their lot in with Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda network.

“There are a hell of a lot of them and they sure know how to fight,” one senior American officer said after the conclusion of the recent offensive Operation Anaconda against diehard fighters in eastern Paktia province.

The man who led the offensive said that a large proportion of the fighters who chose to fight to the death were non-Afghans.

US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld “called them dead-enders,” said US Major General Frank Hagenbeck. “They are left with no choice but to fight.”

The general said coalition forces had come across fighters from Uzbekistan and northwest China, while many Pakistanis are also thought to be fighting with the Al Qaeda and Taliban.

But Chechen separatists, who have been involved in a fierce war for independence from Russia for the past 29 months, appear to make up the largest contingent of Al Qaeda’s foreign legion.

The conflict for the Russians in Chechnya has ironically revived memories back in Moscow of the way the Red Army became bogged down in Afghanistan before it was forced to retreat back into the old Soviet Union some 13 years ago.

Hundreds of Russian soldiers have been killed in attempts to bring rebels to heel in the breakaway republic, while Chechens have been blamed by the Kremlin for a number of deadly explosions in September 1999 which killed more than 300 people.

The explosions prompted President Vladimir Putin to send troops into Chechnya the following month.

Russia has repeatedly linked its “anti-terrorist” campaign in the North Caucasus to the US-led war against terror.

Just as the Americans have followed the Russian example of waging war in Afghanistan, the United States now also finds itself up against another enemy that has caused no end of trouble for Moscow.

Following the downfall of his Taliban protectors in Afghanistan, there has been speculation that Osama may now try to seek refuge in Chechnya.

“We know the history of the Chechens. They are good fighters and they are very brutal,” Hagenbeck said.

The general said he has heard of reports out of the Pentagon that a unit of 100-150 Chechens had moved into southern Afghanistan.

Hagenbeck said US intelligence was exchanging information with foreign counterparts to help fight the Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, but he would not say if there had been any specific exchanges with Moscow over the Chechens.—AFP

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