The last Russian soldiers left the rebel republic of Chechnya on Sunday, ending a humiliating military involvement that began more than two years ago.
The pullout, part of last year’s peace agreement between Moscow and Chechen separatists, clears the way for general elections in Chechnya on Jan. 27.
The Russian ministries of interior and defense, which together had more than 30,000 troops in Chechnya, said Sunday that the pullout is over.
“I’m authorized to state that not a single Interior Ministry or Defense Ministry soldier remains in Chechnya as of today,” Interior Ministry spokesman Lt. Gen. Pavel Maslov told the Interfax news agency.
Russia has been withdrawing troops gradually since a peace deal was reached in August. Maslov said 16,000 to 18,000 Interior Ministry troops had departed in recent months. Defense Ministry spokesman Viktor Tkachenko declined to say how many army servicemen had withdrawn, but the numbers were believed to be similar.
Many Interior Ministry units are now stationed in the southern Russian regions of Dagestan and Stavropol, which border Chechnya. Russian news reports say the soldiers are poorly fed and housed.
Russia’s military involvement in Chechnya began in 1994, with the Kremlin clandestinely helping the pro-Moscow opposition fight the separatist regime of President Dzhokhar Dudayev.
Russian President Boris Yeltsin, determined to crush the secessionist drive of the tiny, mainly Muslim southern republic, ordered about 40,000 troops into Chechnya in December of that year.
But what was planned as a quick campaign turned into a long and bloody war, in which the outnumbered rebels time and again dealt heavy blows to the demoralized Russian military.
The war devastated Chechnya’s economy. Estimates of those killed vary from 18,000 to 100,000. Most were civilians.
Dudayev was reported killed by a Russian missile in April, and numerous attempts to negotiate peace followed. Alexander Lebed, Russia’s former national security chief, struck a successful deal with the separatists in August.
The agreement provided for the Russian pullout and presidential and parliamentary elections in Chechnya. It also postponed any decision on the republic’s political status for five years.
Russia had promised to end the withdrawal by the Jan. 27 elections, but finished early.