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Where death and snipers come in white stockings

RUSSIAN police have arrested a ``White Stocking'' sniper in Chechnya yesterday, one of a group of ruthless women fighting for Shamil Basayev, the Chechen warlord.

Yelena, or Lolita as she is known because of her youthful appearance, is from Ukraine and joined Mr Basayev's army in 1995, during the last war in Chechnya. She was 22. ``I heard that the fighters paid mercenaries well and I wanted to earn some money for my wedding. There was no other way,'' she was quoted as saying.

She impressed the Chechens with her good aim and eventually married a Chechen field commander. A photograph on the front page of Izvestia yesterday showed a young woman in a headscarf with a Russian in military uniform and balaclava.

Yelena killed more than 20 Russian soldiers and police during the present war in Chechnya.

Russian soldiers firmly believe in the myth of the White Stockings, although there has been scant evidence for them. The story of women snipers from the Baltic states and Ukraine, steely blondes with a perfect aim, has been in circulation since the last war.

Yelena may prove to be the first real White Stocking. According to the myth, they are normally sportswomen, which is borne out in the case of Yelena, a former biathlete.

Last October the Russian newspaper Segodnya, quoting Defence Ministry sources, reported that two female snipers, one from the Baltics and one Ukrainian, were killed in Dagestan. A third, an Azerbaijani, was arrested when she tried to escape the war zone posing as refugee and holding a child not her own. All three were said to be former biathalon competitors trained in marksmanship. No names or photographs were published and many dismissed the article as fiction.

During the previous Chechen campaign a reporter was arrested by an elite Interior Ministry unit who thought the women journalists with him were White Stockings.

However skimpy the evidence of women snipers in the present Chechen campaign, there is a tradition of women, believed to be more patient than men, working as snipers since the time of the Soviet Union. During the Second World War women volunteered as snipers because the men were suffering large losses.

Some observers say that the idea of cruel female snipers has been deliberately promoted to fuel Russian hatred of the Chechens and to keep public opinion on the side of the generals. ``In a war you need to form a hate image of the enemy, and the image of the White Stockings in the Chechen conflict serves very useful military propaganda purposes,'' Boris Kagarlitsky of the Russian Academy of Sciences, told The Moscow Times when the stories emerged of female snipers in Dagestan last year.

``Here you have the merging of two powerful images of perceived evil. One is the image of the witch, a very powerful symbol in Russian culture. In this case, a blonde, blue-eyed sniper with an almost fascist appearance. On the other hand you have the stereotype of the evil, dark-skinned Muslim. This makes the perfect hate image to feed to the public,'' he said.

(The Times London)

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