Chechens danced in the streets and waved flags to celebrate Russia's decision Thursday to end its decadelong counterterrorism operation in the war-weary southern region.
The order by President Dmitry Medvedev paves the way for the withdrawal of tens of thousands of federal troops, whose presence has been hugely unpopular amid allegations of widespread abuses against civilians.
The counterterrorism operation — launched at the start of the second of two separatist wars that have battered the region in the last 15 years — involved curfews and limits on civilian air flights and limited access for journalists, among other measures.
Its cancellation boosted the authority of the region's Kremlin-backed President Ramzan Kadyrov, who joined several thousand people Thursday in dancing in a square in central Grozny.
Motorists blared horns and waved Chechen and Russian flags from car windows, as schools and a university interrupted classes to let students to join celebrations.
"I'm very happy that the horrible years we saw will never come back," said 21-year-old student Isa Musayev. "We spent those years in constant fear for our lives."
‘This is a victory over evil’
Kadyrov, who has steadily strengthened his grip on power since his election in 2007, had long pushed for an end to counterterrorism operation in order to reduce federal military presence in Chechnya and remove restrictions which hampered trade.
"This is a victory over evil which we have fought over the last 15 years," Kadyrov said in a statement. "A peaceful and prosperous Chechen Republic in the united family of peoples of Russia — that is our strategic course for the future."
He said the airport in Groznny would soon be opened for international flights and foreign trade, which he said would help attract investors from Arab nations and Europe.
Kadyrov, whose election was choreographed by the Kremlin, has gained increasing popularity among Chechens as he has won more economic freedom for the region and brought many militants into line.
He is credited with bringing in millions of dollars in Russian funds to rebuild the war-ravaged capital, which artillery assaults and aerial bombing had turned into a near-wasteland.
Kadyrov also persuaded hundreds of former militants to join his feared security units. But Chechnya has remained plagued by what international rights groups have called rights violations by Kadyrov's militia, including rampant abductions, torture and murder.
Investigations into abuses?
Amnesty International said Thursday's move must be followed by impartial investigations into past and continuing rights violations committed by federal forces as well as by Kadyrov's militias and militants. They include indiscriminate killings, torture, abductions, arbitrary detentions and other abuses.
"The true benchmark of a return to normality is to give people what they have been wanting for over a decade — they want the truth, and they want justice," said Irene Khan, Amnesty International's secretary general. "They want to know the fate and whereabouts of relatives and friends who are among the disappeared, and they want those responsible brought to account."
Commentators said the measure represented Kadyrov's victory over Russian law-enforcement agencies, which have viewed the Chechen leader with suspicion.
"It strengthens Kadyrov and weakens the influence of the federal government," independent military analyst Alexander Golts said in a telephone interview.
Around 40,000 troops in Chechnya
Officials haven't said how many troops are currently stationed in Chechnya, but Golts put their number at 40,000, split about equally between the defense and interior ministries.
Interior Ministry spokesman Col. Vasily Panchenkov said last month that ending the regime could lead to the withdrawal of about 20,000 ministry troops, though one of its brigades and a division of military troops would remain.
Russia said it intended to end the operation last month. But the decision was delayed after one of Kadyrov's strongest enemies, Sulim Yamadayev, was shot to death in Dubai. Police in Dubai said Kadyrov's right-hand man, Adam Delimkhanov, was suspected of ordering the killing. Reports said Delimkhanov was also suspected in last year's killing of Yamadayev's brother Ruslan. The deaths of the Yamadayev brothers eliminated two of Kadyrov's most powerful opponents.
Though major fighting in Chechnya died down several years ago, sporadic clashes between militants and troops persist in the region and the violence has spun off into neighboring Dagestan and Ingushetia.
The first Chechen war began in 1994 as separatists led by the late Chechen President Dzokhar Dudayev pressed to split off from Russia. The Russian troops withdrew in 1996 under an agreement that left Chechnya de-facto independent, but the region was then plagued by lawlessness and Islamic fundamentalists became increasingly influential.
The Russian troops swept back into Chechnya after Chechen fighters invaded Dagestan in the summer of 1999, aiming to form an Islamic caliphate in a sector of that republic.