ROSTOV-ON-DON, Russia (AP) – The Russian military will cut its deployment in Chechnya by about 1,000 troops and stop using conscripts in the war against separatist rebels next year, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said Friday.

The announcement, however, did not appear to indicate that Russia believes it is gaining an advantage over the guerrillas it has been battling for more than five years. Ivanov said the 42nd Motorized Division that is the military’s main unit in Chechnya “will stay there forever.”

Ivanov, who made the statements during an inspection trip in Rostov-on-Don, headquarters for the military’s southern region, did not give an overall figure for the troop presence in Chechnya.

But Russian officials this year said there were about 70,000 armed forces in Chechnya, including from the army, the Interior Ministry and the Federal Security Service, the main successor to the Soviet KGB. In addition, Chechnya has a large presidential security service that conducts operations against rebels and is widely alleged to abduct and abuse civilians.

Another military official, North Caucasus District commander Alexander Baranov, said the construction of 31 barracks for soldiers in Chechnya was under way or planned within the next year, the ITAR-Tass news agency reported, an apparent indication of Russia’s intention of keeping large contingents of soldiers in the republic for the long term.

Neither the Russian forces nor the rebels have made obvious advances in recent years, with the conflict remaining a bloody stalemate of hit-and-run attacks by the insurgents and small operations and airstrikes by the Russians.

The Russian military is weakened by dismal morale among conscripts, not only because of the years of bloodshed in Chechnya but also due to widespread hazing and other abuse that provokes desertions and suicides.

The switch to a fully professional force in Chechnya was initially promised for 2004.

President Vladimir Putin has made reform of the underfunded military a top priority but backtracked on his initial plan to fully phase out the unpopular draft, accepting the top brass’ proposal for a mixture of draftees and volunteer soldiers.

Russian forces had withdrawn from Chechnya in 1996 after separatists fought them to a standstill in a 20-month war. But they swept in again in 1999 following an incursion by Chechnya-based fighters into neighboring Dagestan and after some 300 people died in apartment bombings blamed on Chechen separatists.

AP-ES-11-12-04 1131EST

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