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    Counter-terrorism operation ends in Chechnya - 2

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    (Adds details, Kadyrov quotes in paras 6-8, 10-12)

    MOSCOW, April 16 (RIA Novosti) - The counter-terrorism operation that was launched in Russia's volatile republic of Chechnya in 1999 finished at midnight, the Russian National Anti-terrorism Committee said on Thursday.

    "The order proclaiming the republic a counter-terrorism operation zone was annulled at 00:00 Moscow time [20:00 GMT Wednesday] on April 16," the committee said in a statement.

    The end to the counter-terrorism operation envisages the withdrawal of some 20,000 Interior Ministry troops deployed in the republic. It also removes restrictions concerning international flights.

    "The decision is aimed at ensuring conditions to normalize further the situation in the republic and to restore and develop its socio-economic sphere," the statement read.

    Russia's Federal Air Transport Agency may now consider granting Grozny airport international flight status.

    Talks on the issue have already been started, but work to modernize the airport infrastructure will take a month, said Sultan Satuyev, the airport director.

    He said Grozny airport would mainly handle flights to Kazakhstan, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, where most Chechen expatriates live.

    "Giving the airport international status is primarily an issue of the republic's political prestige, and economically this brings investment," Satuyev said.

    Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov announced in late March that the counter-terrorism operation could soon be ended in the North Caucasus republic, which witnessed two brutal separatist wars in the 1990s and early 2000s.

    "We have lost all the precious things we had: relatives, friends, houses, property - everything. Our family alone has lost 420 people during the counter-terrorism operation in Chechnya. This is a high price to pay," Kadyrov said.

    "I have lost my dearest people, including my father," he added.

    Ramzan's father, Akhmad Kadyrov, was killed in an explosion on May 9, 2004 in a stadium during a parade dedicated to the WWII victory. Fifteen other people died in the attack.

    Russian federal troops launched a counter-terrorism operation in Chechnya in the fall of 1999 after a group of militants led by Shamil Basayev and Arab mercenary Khattab invaded neighboring Daghestan. Moscow conducted a separate campaign in Chechnya in 1994-1996.

    Under Kadyrov, the republic has seen a decrease in militant activity, although attacks on federal forces remain common. The 32-year-old Chechen leader has been accused by his critics of involvement in human rights abuses, a charge that he denies.

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