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Bombing Seen as Linked to Rebel's Terror Threat

Blast near Chechnya is the third suicide attack since guerrilla leader's vow to target Russians.

June 06, 2003|David Holley | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — A deadly suicide bombing Thursday aboard a bus carrying Russian helicopter pilots and other military personnel appeared to fulfill a recent threat by a key Chechen guerrilla leader, authorities said.

The blast, carried out by a female bomber, killed at least 16 of those on board.

The attack in North Ossetia, near war-torn Chechnya, was the third major suicide bombing in less than a month attributed to Chechen rebels. The recent attacks involved women, a new development in the long-running conflict. At least 91 people died in the three incidents.

"It is clear that such acts of terror are committed only for one single purpose -- to destabilize the situation in Chechnya and the North Caucasus if possible, and make the war last for years here," Mikhail Shatalov, prime minister of the North Ossetian government, said in a telephone interview.

Shamil Basayev, considered one of the most extreme rebel leaders, was quoted last month on a rebel-linked Web site claiming responsibility for the first two of the recent attacks. He described them as "a tiny part" of a new campaign against "the Russian occupiers and their local lackeys."

Chechens exercised self-rule after defeating Russian troops in a 1994-96 war, but Russian forces returned in 1999.

Alongside a military crackdown, Russian President Vladimir V. Putin is now promoting a political process that would grant the predominantly Muslim republic limited autonomy but deny it the independence sought by rebels.

A March referendum in Chechnya approved a new constitution that paves the way for elections.

Federal authorities in Moscow have also pledged $450 million in compensation to about 40,000 Chechen families for housing destroyed during military operations.

To further the bid for reconciliation, parliament is expected to approve a law granting limited amnesty to rebels who lay down their arms by Sept. 1. However, the amnesty does not apply to those guilty of murder, kidnapping or other serious violent crimes, nor to foreigners, prompting critics to question whether it offers any real incentive to guerrilla fighters.

Russian authorities have long sought to link the fighting in Chechnya to international terrorist organizations, describing the conflict not as a civil war or independence struggle by Chechens but rather a battle against banditry and terror. The recent wave of suicide bombings has bolstered this effort, and authorities swiftly made the argument again Thursday.

"According to our information, female suicide bombers are being trained abroad," Sergei Ignatchenko, a spokesman for the Federal Security Service, a successor to the Soviet-era KGB, said in televised remarks.

"Special psychologists work with them, bringing them to such a condition that they are happy to meet with death. Then they are sent to Chechnya."

The attack Thursday, which also wounded at least 11 people, came after the bus stopped or slowed near a railroad crossing on the outskirts of the town of Mozdok. It was on its way to the nearby Prokhladny air base. Forces based in the area have played a key role in the Chechnya fighting.

Russian television showed footage of the bus with most of its windows blasted out and bodies covered with cloth lying on the ground. Reports differed as to whether the woman got on the bus or set off the bomb when she wasn't allowed to board.

"It is a war that our enemy cannot win with the help of conventional weapons," said a high-ranking Federal Security Service official reached by telephone in North Ossetia, who spoke on condition that he not be further identified. "Instead, they use suicide bombers turned into zombies. They do not have any other way out."

In the first of the three recent incidents, a woman and one or two men carried out a truck bomb suicide attack May 12 that killed at least 59 people at a government complex in northern Chechnya. On May 14, a suicide bomber killed at least 16 people at a Muslim religious ceremony in the village of Ilaskhan-Yurt, or as it is known in Russian, Belorechye.

Women rigged with explosives also took part in a mass hostage-taking at a Moscow theater in October. In that incident 129 captives died, nearly all from a sleeping gas that Russian forces used before they stormed the building. All of the hostage-takers were also killed, authorities said.

Since the theater incident, the female hostage-takers have come to be seen as "real heroines" by many Chechen women, said Anna Politkovskaya, a political analyst and specialist on Chechnya for the newspaper Novaya Gazeta.

"Many of the Chechen women I recently met there are also ready to sacrifice themselves in a desperate act of terror," Politkovskaya said.

Authorities are mistaken to blame incidents such as Thursday's bombing on foreign influences, she said.

"The Kremlin takes advantage of the situation and uses it to its own profit, screaming quite loudly that Russia is fighting against international terrorism along its own stretch of the front line," she said. "Hence the simple explanation that women suicide bombers were zombified by foreign psychological warfare instructors."

Politkovskaya said she can agree that "thousands of women in Chechnya are zombified."

"But they are zombified by their own sorrow and grief," she said.

*

Times staff writers Sergei L. Loiko and Alexei V. Kuznetsov contributed to this report.

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