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13 Mourners Die in Bombing at Moscow Grave

November 11, 1996|RICHARD BOUDREAUX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — Gang warfare violated a Moscow cemetery Sunday when a bomb exploded near the grave of a slain Afghan War veterans leader on the second anniversary of his death, killing his widow, his mother and 11 others at a memorial service.

The blast wounded at least 14 other mourners and stunned a city that had seemed hardened by hundreds of brazen contract killings in the struggle for post-Soviet wealth and power. Moscow police could recall no previous mob-style hit targeting so many innocents.

The attack, which also killed Mikhail Likhodei's successor, was the latest in a 3-year-old struggle between rival Afghan War veterans factions over millions of dollars in government benefits for war invalids--a feud allegedly involving mobsters behind at least one side.

It came a week after the apparent contract slaying of an American hotelier outside a Moscow subway station, and it embarrassed the police on Militia Day--the annual commemoration of their work.

"Don't they have enough turf to fight on without going into cemeteries?" asked a police officer at the blast scene. "This is the absolute limit. They didn't just want to kill someone in particular. They set up a mass murder. They needed this demonstration of violent, mad force."

Police said the bomber stood 40 yards away from the target and set off several pounds of TNT with a wire detonator. The TNT was buried under a metal table piled with food and alcoholic beverages for the 100 or so mourners gathered around Likhodei's grave on a chilly morning.

The explosion in the Kotlyakovskoye cemetery in southern Moscow left a pit in the ground 15 feet across and five feet deep. The food table shot skyward and crashed down by the marble slab etched with Likhodei's likeness.

Alexander Boiko told reporters he had drunk two glasses of vodka in memory of his friend when the bomb knocked him unconscious. He said he awoke with head injuries "surrounded by dead bodies."

"Death was everywhere in this place--under the earth, on the ground and up in the trees," said Pyotr N. Semenikhin, deputy director of the cemetery, who was temporarily deafened by the blast 500 yards away. "I have never seen anything more shocking in my life, even in the movies.

"Many people were lying around bleeding and moaning in pain. At that moment, I think, those still alive must have envied the dead."

Likhodei, an army lieutenant colonel who lost a leg and an eye in the Soviet Union's 10-year war in Afghanistan, became chairman of the Afghan War Invalids Foundation in 1993 after ousting Valery Radchikov, a retired intelligence colonel, from the job.

The dispute between them involved income from the sale of liquor, cigarettes and food that the government allowed the foundation to import tax free in order to subsidize charity work among its neediest members. The foundation claims to represent thousands of disabled Afghan War veterans.

Court papers filed by Likhodei's faction accused Radchikov of cutting "unscrupulous" entrepreneurs in on $800 million worth of duty-free business and failing to account for $80 million of the group's funds.

The 42-year-old Likhodei and a bodyguard died in an explosion Nov. 10, 1994, in the lobby of his southern Moscow apartment building after someone in his group touched an elevator button and triggered a bomb. His wife, Yelena, who died Sunday, was slightly wounded in that blast.

Police questioned one of Radchikov's deputies in the 1994 bombing but brought no charges. On Oct. 29, 1995, Radchikov was wounded in a hail of bullets that killed his lawyer as they were driving in Moscow on the eve of a court hearing on the dispute.

Sunday's bombing "was probably linked to a settling of old scores," said Col. Stanislav Zhorin of the Federal Security Service, a successor agency to the KGB.

Afghan War veterans are a favorite target of Russian mob predators out for a share of tax privileges. Veterans wondered aloud Sunday whether mobsters were simply used as hit men in the factional feud--or whether they acted on their own to exert mob control.

Sergei Trakhirov, who took over from Likhodei and pressed his legal case against the rival faction, was killed in Sunday's blast. So was Trakhirov's wife.

Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin called the bombing a "terrorist act" and canceled a televised concert in honor of Militia Day. He publicly challenged Interior Minister Anatoly S. Kulikov to bring the bomber to justice.

According to figures released before the bombing, 1,238 people had been killed this year in Moscow, a city of 8.8 million people--down from last year's post-Soviet record of 1,700. But contract killings were up to 219 in Moscow--three more than in all of 1995. Police say they are fighting 466 criminal gangs in the capital.

Sergei L. Loiko of The Times' Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.

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