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Terror stalks the Caucasus in faceless, borderless war

Lives are disappearing in a land where no one is called to account.

August 16, 2009|By Megan K. Stack | Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

ORDZHONIKIDZEVSKAYA, RUSSIA — This is a place where gangs with masked faces come out of the darkness to take the young men away.

Sometimes the bodies turn up with broken limbs, bruises, torn-away fingernails and burns. Sometimes the captives are placed under arrest officially and end up in jail. Lately, many simply disappear.

Russia's hidden war against anti-government rebels across the Caucasus Mountains has reached a terrible intensity here in the small, mostly Muslim Russian republic of Ingushetia.

Day after day, insurgents attack police and government officials with ambushes and bombings. And day after day, security forces unleash what human rights activists describe as a campaign of killings, abductions and torture in their efforts to force calm upon the land.

Now Ingushetia is struggling under the weight of a new terror, one that seeps over the mountains from Chechnya, a neighboring mostly Muslim Russian republic.

Having brutally squashed dissent in his own restive republic, Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, a young Kremlin-backed former rebel known for his ruthless style of rule, is sending his notorious squads of fighters to hunt down rebels in Ingushetia.

With Kadyrov's authority creeping over the boundary, Ingushetia has become a land without accountability. Killings may be attributed to the Russian government, local authorities, separatist rebels or Chechens. Lives disappear in the tangle of overlain bureaucracy and shrugged shoulders.

"Everybody is scared now, because the Chechens can do whatever they want," said Varvara Pakhomenko, a Caucasus expert with Demos, a Russian human rights group. "Even in 2007, when the mass disappearances started, people weren't afraid; they'd look you in the eyes. But now, when they realize Kadyrov is legally, officially there, they have become really, really scared."

Faustian deal

Less than a decade back, trapped in a cycle of war and retribution in the breakaway territory of Chechnya, Russia's then-President Vladimir Putin is believed to have struck a Faustian deal with the Kadyrovs, a clan of onetime rebels willing to switch sides: They could create a fiefdom as long as the republic stayed quiet.

Since following his assassinated father into the Chechen presidency in 2007, Kadyrov, 32, has lavished Moscow's cash on rebuilding his republic's bomb-flattened capital, Grozny. He has also constructed an elaborate cult of personality and, according to human rights activists, has terrorized the population with abductions, torture, extrajudicial killings and secret prisons.

On June 22, the Ingush president was seriously wounded in a suicide bombing. Within a few hours, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev publicly ordered Kadyrov to "intensify" his "pursuit of militants."

Two days later, Kadyrov appeared in the Ingush capital and announced that "when we hunt for criminals, there can be no borders." Joint Ingush-Chechen security operations had been approved by Moscow and would intensify, he said.

The message was plain: With the Kremlin's blessing, Kadyrov's controversial methods of pacifying Chechnya were being exported to the surrounding region. To many observers, Ingushetia now stands as a test of the Kremlin's willingness to let Kadyrov's power grow to keep pace with his ambitions.

"They've created a Frankenstein they can no longer control," Pakhomenko said. "Because if you sack Ramzan Kadyrov now, Chechnya will plunge into complete disorder. The Kremlin has become hostage to a situation they created themselves."

In interviews before she was abducted and killed, human rights investigator Natalia Estemirova compared the atmosphere in Kadyrov's Chechnya to the Soviet Union under Stalin. Last month, she was snatched off the street outside her home in the Chechen capital.

Her body was dumped in Ingushetia.

A son is seized

It was 5:30 on a July morning when the men pounded on the door of the cramped Albakov apartment in this dusty scrap of a village a few miles from the Chechen line.

"Passport check!" the nine intruders shouted to the groggy family. "Show us your documents." Two of them wore civilian clothes; the rest wore camouflage and toted submachine guns. They said they were police officers from the Ingush city of Nazran, the family later said.

But they refused to show any identification and, among themselves, they spoke Chechen. Only one of the men appeared to be Ingush, and another Russian. The rest, the family was certain, were Chechens.

They seized 26-year-old Batyr Albakov, led him outside in his bedroom slippers and black jeans and shoved him into one of the silver Ladas parked on the road.

"They held him by the arms and led him out," said his mother, 52-year-old widow Petimat Albakova. "I shouted, 'I will follow you! I will see where you take him!' I was holding the door of the car, but they sped off. I was screaming, 'Let me come with you!' "

Her son was gone.

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