Chechen fighters in Ukraine

Chechen fighters in Ukraine

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Chanting "Allahu Akbar" (God is greatest), dozens of armed men in camouflage uniforms from Russia's republic of Chechnya train in snow in a camp in the rebel-held east Ukraine.

They say their "Death" unit fighting Ukrainian forces has 300 people, mostly former state security troops in the mainly-Muslim region where Moscow waged two wars against Islamic insurgents.

. Donetsk region, Ukraine. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

Seasoned Chechen fighters, whose combat experience often dates back to the 1994-96 and 1999-2000 wars, fight on both sides in east Ukraine, adding to the complexity of a conflict in which the West says Russian troops are involved.

. Donetsk region, Ukraine. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

"This is volunteer battalion Death," deputy commander of the group who only gave his nickname "Stinger", pictured above, said in a former tourist camp the unit turned into their base outside of the rebel stronghold of Donetsk in east Ukraine.

"We have battlefield experience from 10 to 20 years starting from 1995," said the man, in his forties, a pistol fixed to his thigh.

He had a little Chechen flag in green, white and red stitched to his cap and speaks Russian with a strong Caucasus accent.

. Donetsk region, Ukraine. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

Russia sides with the rebels in east Ukraine but denies sending serving troops to reinforce them. Some fighters on the ground admit to being former Russian servicemen, or "on leave". Moscow has said any Russians fighting there are volunteers.

In Ukraine, Stinger's men are sworn enemies with another group of Chechens who fight on the opposite side of the conflict and support the Kiev government troops.

Some of them have Western passports after fleeing Russia following the two wars. They say Moscow is theirs and Kiev's joint enemy and that Chechnya is occupied by Russia.

. Donetsk region, Ukraine. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

Some of those in the "Death" unit said they had initially fought against Russia in Chechnya but later switched sides and were amnestied by a former Kremlin-allied head of the region, Ramzan's father, Akhmet Kadyrov.

"Now we are (former) soldiers and officers of the Russian army, of Russian special forces, mostly veterans of war campaigns," Stinger said.