CBC News Online | July 10, 2006
Moscow's hold on Chechnya has been tenuous at best, since the czar's forces first conquered the Caucasus region in the 19th century. Even under Russian rule, the region has always managed to maintain some degree of autonomy.
The oil-rich region was made part of the Soviet Mountain People's Republic in 1921, was declared the Chechen Autonomous Region the following year and, along with the Ingush region to the west, was named the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic in 1936.
But when Chechen forces were accused of collaborating with the Germans during the Second World War, Joseph Stalin dissolved the republic and ordered many of its people deported to Central Asia, to what is now Kazakhstan.
Many of the exiles died, but those who survived returned to the region in the 1950s, after Stalin's death, and the republic was reborn in 1957.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the Chechen parliament under President Dzhokhar Dudayev proclaimed the region the independent Republic of Ichkeria, or Chechnya.
The Ingush minority in Chechnya was granted their own republic, Ingushetia, in the western part of the region in 1992.
The moves were not recognized by Moscow.
A growing separatist movement in Chechnya prompted the Kremlin in 1994 to help the pro-Moscow opposition fight the Dudayev regime.
In December of that year, Russian President Boris Yeltsin sent 40,000 troops to remove Dudayev and prevent the region from breaking away.
But what was planned as a quick campaign escalated into a bloody 13-month war. The capital of Grozny was crushed. Estimates of the number of people killed ranged from 30,000 to 100,000.
The Russian military outnumbered the rebels, but the Chechens staged a number of devastating attacks on the soldiers.
By 1996, the Russians held many of the urban areas in Chechnya, but the separatists controlled the mountainous areas in the south. In April of 1996, Dudayev was killed in a Russian rocket attack.
In August that year, the two sides reached a ceasefire agreement that left Chechnya essentially autonomous. The last of the Russian soldiers withdrew in early 1997.
The ceasefire provided for presidential and parliamentary elections in Chechnya, which were held in January 1997. Separatist army leader Alsan Maskhadov easily won the election.
The Maskhadov era was marked by chaos and lawlessness: a series of kidnappings a Russian general, a four-year-old girl and an American missionary and an assassination attempt on Maskhadov himself. Oil pipelines passing through Chechnya were illegally tapped. In 1999, Islamic law was established in the republic.
In August 1999, Chechen guerrillas invaded the neighbouring Russian republic of Dagestan. Moscow responded with air strikes on the militants' positions in border villages in the Caucasus Mountains.
Weeks later, a series of bombings swept Moscow, the first in a shopping mall and then two more that destroyed two apartment blocks and killed nearly 300 people.
The Kremlin blamed the attacks on Chechen terrorists and the Maskhadov government. Russian planes started bombing targets within Chechnya in late September 1999, and tanks and troops followed days later.
Maskhadov declared martial law in Chechnya as well as a ghazevat, or holy war, in which all men of eligible age were ordered to fight.
Russia faced international criticism as it moved on Grozny. Russian president Vladimir Putin denied that troops were attacking civilian targets, as accounts of factories and apartment buildings being reduced to rubble mounted. He later expressed regret over the number of Chechen civilians killed in the fighting.
Tens of thousands of Chechens and more than 10,000 Russian conscripts have died in the conflicts and an estimated 400,000 Chechens have fled to neighbouring Ingushetia to live in refugee camps.
In May 2000, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared direct rule of Chechnya and appointed Akhmad Kadyrov, a former construction worker and Muslim cleric, to be the head of the Chechen government. The former separatist defected to the pro-Moscow side and some Chechens consider him a traitor.
With the change in leadership, Chechen separatists launched a series of attacks on Russian targets. In September 2001, Chechen rebels attacked the town of Gudermes, the republic's second largest city and the site of the Russian administration. Rebels also shot down an Mi-8 helicopter over Grozny, killing at least 10 high-ranking Russian officers. In August 2002, Chechen rebels fired a missile at an Mi-26 helicopter, killing 118 Russian soldiers.
But it was in October 2002 that Chechens took the fight to Moscow, seizing a theatre and holding about 800 people hostage. Three days later, Russian soldiers stormed the theatre. The raid killed 50 rebels and about 100 of the hostages.
In December 2002 and May 2003, a pair of suicide bombings against the Russian-backed government killed nearly 150 people, and Kadyrov narrowly escaped a suicide attack that left 12 people dead.
Kadyrov was declared the winner of the presidential election in October 2003, but the election was marred by allegations of interference from Moscow. In the days leading up to the vote, Putin made one of Kadyrov's political rivals an adviser. Another candidate was not allowed to run because the Chechen Supreme Court ruled that his nomination papers were invalid. Separatist parties had been declared illegal and were not allowed to run at all.
In May 2004, Chechen separatists killed Kadyrov and at least six other people during a ceremony at a packed soccer stadium commemorating Russia's victory over Nazi Germany in the Second World War. A bomb made from two artillery shells had been planted under the stadium seats months before the event took place. A local medical centre said the explosion killed 24 people and injured 46 others, while Putin's office said only seven people died.
Political analyst Pavel Felgenhauer said Kadyrov's death is a huge blow to Putin's efforts to stamp out the Chechen insurgency. "Everyone in the Kremlin understands that without a base in Chechen society you can't stop that separatist movement," said Felgenhauer.
"Our base was Kadyrov. Now we're without a base," he said.
An election to replace Kadyrov took place on August 29, 2004. Voters chose Moscow's favoured candidate, Interior Minster Alu Alkhanov, as the new Chechen president. Alkhanov is already a target, however. Rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov had vowed to kill whoever won the election.
On Sept. 2, 2004, heavily armed militants took more than 1,200 hostages, including children, in a school gymnasium in Beslan, in southern Russia. The militants had rigged the building with bombs, which started exploding (accidentally, according to some witnesses). The militants starting shooting at fleeing hostages and Russian troops stormed in. At least 338 people were killed, more than half of them children.
On Sept. 17, 2004, an e-mail message from Chechen rebel leader Shamil Basayev was posted on a rebel website. The letter said Basayev's Riyadus Salikhin Martyrs' Brigade was behind the school siege in Beslan and the suicide bomb attacks that downed two Russian passenger planes in late August 2004.
In March 2005, Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov was killed during a "special operation," according to a Russian army spokesperson.
On May 26, 2006, the only surviving hostage-taker in the Beslan Siege was handed a life-sentence. Nur-Pashi Kulayev, 25, was found guilty of terrorism and murder in the three-day siege. Families of the victims called for a death sentence. The judge agreed with the families, but because Russian government has a moratorium on capital punishment, he gave Kulayev life in prison.
In July 2006, Basayev was killed in an explosion in Ingushetia as he was escorting a truck carrying hundreds of kilograms of explosives. The blast occurred during a special police operation, according to reports. Putin called Basayev's death "deserved retribution."
Population: 1.2 million|
Area: Estimated at between 15,000 and 20,000 square kilometres, about four times the size of P.E.I.
Borders: Shares borders with Georgia to the south, and the Russian republics of Dagestan, Stavropol, North Ossetia and Ingushetia
Languages: Chechen, a Caucasian language
Religion: Sunni Muslim