Terror in the air

Published : Sep 24, 2004 00:00 IST

The blowing up of two Russian aircraft by militants just a few days before the election of a pro-Kremlin President in strife-torn Chechnya once again raises tensions in the region.

in Moscow

ON the night of August 24, in a tragedy reminiscent of the September 11 attacks in the United States, two Russian airplanes exploded within minutes of each other over the Russian mainland, after taking off from Moscow's Domodedovo airport. The incident occurred just five days before the turbulent state of Chechnya went to polls to elect a new President.

In what has now been established as a terrorist strike, the two planes exploded killing all 90 people on board. The first plane, a TU-134 jet bound for Volgograd, lost radar contact at 10.56 p.m. Eyewitnesses reported a massive explosion in the Tula region, 200 km south of Moscow. The plane carried 35 passengers and eight crew members. About six minutes later, a TU-154 jet bound for the Black Sea resort of Sochi exploded in mid-air. The jet, which carried 38 passengers and eight crew members, had triggered a hijack alert

President Vladimir Putin cut short his vacation in Sochi and rushed back to Moscow on August 25. He ordered the Federal Security Service (FSB) to investigate the crashes. Initially, the FSB hinted that the twin crashes were accidents. Its spokesperson Nikolai Kharinov said: "At the moment the main theory is a violation of civilian aircraft rules." Technical failure, low-quality fuel, fuelling violations or pilot error was said to be responsible for the crashes.

However, investigation of the debris at the crash sites led the authorities to conclude that they were the result of a terrorist strike. The authorities indicated that traces of the powerful explosive RDX (Research Department Explosive, also known as hexogen) were recovered from the sites. The FSB officially acknowledged this discovery on August 27. Its spokesperson Sergei Ignatchenko said: "A preliminary analysis shows that it was hexogen." He added that the FSB had identified "a circle of people that may have been involved in the terrorist acts on board the TU-154 plane".

Before the FSB issued its statement, an Islamist group, Islambouli Brigades, claimed responsibility for both the crashes. The group said that five "holy warriors" were aboard each plane to execute the crashes. A statement of the group published in an Arabic language web site known to be a mouthpiece of Islamic militants said: "Our mujahideen, with God's grace, succeeded in directing the first blow, which will be followed by a series of other operations in a wave to extend support and victory to our Muslim brothers in Chechnya and other Muslim areas that suffer from Russian faithlessness." However, the statement does not mention the involvement of Chechen militants. Also, the rebel leadership in Chechnya has denied its involvement.

Investigators suspect that two Chechen women passengers were "suicide bombers". The suspicion was strengthened by the facts that no relatives turned up to claim their bodies and that they bought their tickets at the last moment at the Domodedovo airport. Further, the bodies of the two women were smashed to smithereens, indicating that the women were in close proximity to the bombs. Reports say that one of them, Amanta Nagayeva, hailed from a village in Chechnya and her brother had been taken away by unidentified armed men in 2003. The other woman has been identified as S. Dzhebirkhanova and her background is being investigated. In the past too Chechen militants have used women as "suicide bombers".

Importantly, the crashes came just before Chechnya went to the polls yet again to elect a President. The last President, Akhmad Kadyrov, was assassinated in May. The turbulent state saw widespread violence in the run-up to the elections held on August 29. As polling commenced, a rebel blew himself up outside a polling station. Although the Kremlin-backed candidate Alu Alkhanov won, he faces a dangerous challenge. Separatists have vowed to eliminate "Moscow's stooge".

Days before the Russian security apparatus grudgingly came around to the view that the crashes were the work of terrorists, aviation and counter-terrorism experts and the public at large had suspected that it was not an accident. Airline analyst Mike Boyd told the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC): "Terrorist threats, an election in Chechnya and President Putin vacationing in the Black Sea - you put all that together and it does not look good." He added that apart from the September 11 hijackings, there were no instances of "two airplanes taking off from the same airport, going in the same general direction - south - and disappearing at almost the same time".

Vladimir Mikhailov, former chief of the explosive and technical department of the Soviet-era KGB, told the Russian daily Kommersant that approximately "200 grams of explosives are enough to blow up a plane, if you know how and where to put them. And it is not easy to find where the explosion occurred in a matter of several hours". He also pointed out that the facts that a diversionary explosion at a bus stop preceded the crashes, that they occurred within minutes of each other, that the planes flew from the same airport's domestic terminal where security is said to be lax, all suggested that the crashes were linked to terrorists.

Meanwhile, Putin called for a day of national mourning and set in motion a series of measures to deal with the threat the development posed to Russia's security. He ordered the security agencies to undertake an in-depth study of the international experience in fighting terrorism in air transport. Airport security is being tightened and aircraft are to be equipped with modern alarm equipment. Analysts have been unanimous in their assessment that the crashes were aided by lax security at domestic airports.

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