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New Chechen Leader Says He Will 'Eradicate' Rebels

Amid fraud complaints following Alkhanov's apparent landslide win, officials in the war-torn republic call vote normal, democratic.

August 31, 2004|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

GROZNY, Russia — Brushing aside allegations of fraud, Chechen authorities on Monday praised the republic's "normal and democratic" presidential election, and the burly police official who won in a reported landslide pledged to "eradicate" the separatists who have been at war with Russia for 10 years.

"We will finish the rebels. We will eradicate them forever. I am confident of it," said Alu Alkhanov, the Russian-backed interior minister who authorities said won 73% of Sunday's vote against six rivals. His victory, they said, gave him a mandate to continue Moscow's program for bringing the Caucasian republic under control with a combination of brute force and economic development.

"The main task is to ensure security and stability, and the active development of the economy. From this, my first decisions and my government's steps will proceed," Alkhanov, 47, told reporters inside a walled compound secured by dozens of bodyguards and an armored personnel carrier -- a reminder that insurgents have vowed to kill Alkhanov as they did his predecessor, Akhmad Kadyrov, who died in a bomb blast in May.

In addition to the violence in Chechnya, the region's separatists have been blamed by Moscow authorities for terrorist attacks across Russia in recent years. Investigators probing the near-simultaneous crashes of two Russian airliners last week have focused on Chechen separatists.

Russian news reports Monday said two women who may have acted as suicide bombers on the planes had lived only a few miles from the Chechen president's compound in Grozny, the republic's capital.

The women, Amnat Nagayeva and Satsita Dzhebirkhanova, sold clothing in a Grozny market and lived together nearby, the newspaper Izvestia reported. They were seen two days before the Aug. 24 crashes on a bus in the company of two other women. The whereabouts of those women, roommates of Nagayeva and Dzhebirkhanova, are unknown, and authorities are investigating whether they could be potential bombers as well.

According to relatives interviewed by the newspaper, one of Nagayeva's brothers disappeared in 2001 and may have been kidnapped by Russian soldiers.

A brother of Dzhebirkhanova was a former Islamic court judge who was shot to death in 1998 by other Chechens.

Another brother of Nagayeva, Isa Nagayev, said his sister was missing but he was sure she would never have volunteered as a suicide bomber.

"I do not believe that she was on that plane. I think she went missing somewhere and her passport was used by terrorists," he said.

Col. Iliya Shabalkin, spokesman for the Russian military's anti-terrorism operation in the northern Caucasus, told the Los Angeles Times: "I can't say today whether those were their real names or their real documents. We're checking it out."

Meanwhile, Chechen election officials worked Monday to build public confidence in the weekend balloting as one candidate filed a fraud complaint and questioned the reported 85% turnout. On Sunday, streets and many polling stations in the capital were empty as residents hid indoors or fled to villages, fearing violence.

"The ballots cast for Alkhanov, and especially the figures of the turnout, are so ridiculously absurd that everyone in the republic understands what happened," said Abdulla Bugayev, a well-known politician who was credited with only 4% of the vote.

Bugayev's campaign filed a complaint with the prosecutor's office alleging that a ballot box was stuffed with premarked ballots in at least one district 10 miles outside Grozny.

Representatives of the Moscow Helsinki Group, a human rights organization, said they watched the arrival at polling stations of official election observers from the Commonwealth of Independent States (an alliance of former Soviet republics), the Arab League, the Russian parliament and the Organization of the Islamic Conference, all of whom praised the conduct of the election.

But U.S. officials raised questions about the balloting. "Yesterday's presidential vote did not meet international standards for a democratic election," said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher. "There were serious flaws in the electoral process there, especially the earlier disqualification of a leading candidate on a mere technicality," he said, referring to Moscow-based businessman Malik Saidullayev.

Liliya Shevtsova, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center, said there was "little doubt there was a certain level of control over these elections on the part of [Moscow]. Attempts were made to simulate full-fledged and properly conducted elections. Ballot boxes must have been stuffed."

But, she said, "it is important to note the fact that many Chechen voters did get out and vote for Alkhanov. This ... means that quite a few Chechens are ready to accept whatever option they're given by Moscow, simply because they're in despair."

Election officials said they received only two minor complaints, and both were investigated and dismissed. Observers who saw few voters at the polls simply came at the wrong time of day, suggested Abdul-Kerim Arsakhanov, chairman of the election commission.

Officials downplayed reports of a suicide bomber who killed himself Sunday morning near a central Grozny polling station.

"It was preliminarily established that there was a very complicated domestic situation, and possibly he was carrying explosives [intended for] his wife," said Shabalkin, the anti-terrorist military officer.

Alexei V. Kuznetsov of The Times' Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.

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