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1 Mar, 2010 06:59

Russia remembers fallen soldiers 10 years on

March 1 marks the tenth anniversary of a grave counter-terrorist mission in which 90 Russian paratroopers stood firm against hundreds of Chechen militants. Only six Russians survived.

On February 29, 2000 the paratroopers, mostly from the northwestern cities of Pskov and St. Petersburg, withstood a large multinational band of militants trying to hold the strategically important Argun Gorge, in the Caucasus Mountains.

The battle lasted several hours and more than 700 militants were killed. Outnumbered 20 to one, the Russian soldiers suffered heavy losses during what came to be known as one of the worst tragedies of the anti-terrorist campaign in the North Caucasus.

Roman Khristolyubov was sent to Chechnya when the second mission against the militants began in 1999. Although a veteran of many military missions, he says his first battle in the Argun Gorge was a nightmare that will stay with him for the rest of his life.

That was our first battle. Of course we were scared, “recalls Khristolyubov. “Besides, the militants were shelling us. And it's also terrible to see your friends, some dead, others injured and crying for help.”

The Russian Federal forces were fighting a formidable enemy. Many militants had experience in Afghanistan and the first Chechen campaign, and were backed by Al-Qaeda with funds and weapons.

Official reports into the events concluded that the militants were trying to cross into the neighboring Russian Republic of Dagestan. The notorious Chechen militant Khattab, originally from Jordan, was in command. Militant gunmen were said to have walked fully upright, in spite of oncoming fire.

Rockets and mortars were used in the battle. The nearby village of Ulus-Kert was almost completely destroyed. A decade on, the area still bears the scars.

“We were terribly scared,” says local resident Khamzat Rasuev. “Cows were mooing intensely, dogs were barking. The militants occupied the whole gorge so that the federal troops could not get out for a long time."

22 soldiers were awarded the most prestigious Hero of Russia award, while 69 received the Medal of Honor. Most of these awards were given posthumously. Six months after the tragedy, Vladimir Putin, president at the time, came to Chechnya to lay flowers and to honor those fallen. A street in the center of the Chechen capital Grozny was renamed in honor of the soldiers. A memorial remains as a testimony to the high price paid for peace in this southern Russian republic.