Chechen rebels disrupt Moscow's peace initiative with a suicide bomb attack in a Russian stronghold.in Moscow
EVEN as Russians returned to work on May 12 at the end of Russia's rather festive holiday period in this season, a nightmare awaited them. The peace of that calm spring morning was rudely disrupted by a massive bomb attack in northern Chechnya. An explosives-laden truck driven by suicide bombers screeched into the headquarters of the Federal Security Service (FSB), Russia's premier security agency, in the town of Znamenskoye. The massive blast that followed killed 54 persons and injured over 300. These figures were given by Chechnya's Moscow-backed administration.
Major General Ruslan Avtayev, a Minister who is in charge of handling emergency situations in Chechnya, said the next day that the victims included 7 children, 16 women and 10 officers of the FSB and that of the 300 people injured, 57 were in a critical condition.
The blast left a crater at least 15 metres wide and four metres deep. About 10 buildings, including the offices of the FSB and the district administration and a number of residential blocks, were razed. Even two days after the blast, attempts were on to rescue survivors from the debris.
It is widely perceived in Moscow that the blast is a major attempt by Chechen rebels to derail the fresh initiative taken by the Kremlin in the form of a referendum (Frontline, April 25) to bring peace to the war-torn region. In a televised address to the nation, Russian President Vladimir Putin stressed that the incident would not disrupt the peace process in Chechnya. Putin reportedly told a meeting of top government officials that "the act was directed at stopping the process of bringing about a political settlement to the situation in Chechnya. We cannot allow anything like this to happen, nor will we."
A significant fact is that the blast occurred in northern Chechnya, which has been in Russian hands since the beginning of what is described as the second Chechen war (1999). It was considered a secure government base. Putin has asked FSB Director Nikolai Patrushev to launch a thorough investigation into the incident.
He was quick to draw parallels between the blasts in Chechnya and those against Western targets in Riyadh (see separate story). The Russian President told the visiting Secretary-General of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), George Robertson, that, "the handwriting of the terrorist acts in Chechnya and Saudi Arabia is absolutely the same. The consequences are absolutely comparable." His comparison seems to be part of an attempt to find a common ground with the United States in the matter of terrorist violence.
Although the authorities in Moscow and Chechnya are certain that the attack carried out by three suicide bombers was the handiwork of the rebels, they differ on which group is responsible for it. While Akhmed Kadyrov, who heads the Chechen administration, suspects the hand of rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov, others say that Shamil Basayev, another rebel leader, might be the culprit.
Eyewitnesses have reported that there was at least one woman in the suicide squad. Of late, women have been increasingly active in suicide missions in Chechnya. Movsar Barayev's rebel group that attacked the Nord-Ost musical theatre in Moscow had several women, including Barayev's aunt, Zura Barayeva, and the widows of the "field commanders" Zelimkhan and Rezvan Akhmadov. Another aunt of Barayev, Khava, three years ago drove a stolen truck into the Chechen military commandant's office in Alkhan Yurt, killing two police officers of the Omsk special-purpose police force.
Akhmed Kadyrov has said that security is lax and that it has become necessary to "introduce changes in the conduct of counter-terrorist operations". He has suggested that the responsibility for anti-terrorist operations should be transferred from the Moscow-based FSB and the Russian troops to the Interior Ministry of Chechnya. Moscow-based analysts say that one proposal doing the rounds in the capital is to give counter-terrorist operations in Chechnya a new status: that of a peace-keeping operation. This envisages the federal forces stepping aside and letting Kadyrov's men deal with the situation. This, however, does not necessarily mean that Russia would welcome United Nations peacekeepers.
Russian Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov, during a recent visit to Sweden, had said that, "gradually, more functions and responsibility for the operation in Chechnya will be delegated to the Russian Interior Ministry on the whole and the Chechen Interior Ministry in particular". If this plan is implemented, both the FSB and the federal troops will be sidelined and the conflict will be between Kadyrov's forces consisting of pro-Moscow Chechens and the rebels. This is likely to erode the rebel support base within Chechnya.
On the whole, the next couple of months will prove a major challenge for both the Russian government and the Chechen administration. Even as Putin prepares to take the peace process ahead by asking officials to draft a document dividing political powers between Moscow and Grozny, the rebels seem determined to wreck the plan.