An apparent rocket attack on the Chechen capital Grozny yesterday killed scores of people and wounded many more. RFE/RL's Moscow correspondent Sophie Lambroschini reports that Russian political and military officials are giving conflicting statements today about Russian responsibility for the attack. And Russian statements are widely at odds with reports from correspondents on the ground.
Moscow, 22 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The only thing that Russian officials seem to agree on is that there were several blasts yesterday evening in the center of Grozny.
Russia has claimed responsibility for the attack, but denies launching rockets against the city and denies that any civilians were killed. Eyewitness reports from Grozny, however, give a different picture.
RFE/RL's special correspondent Andrei Babitsky is an experienced war correspondent who covered the first Chechen war in 1994-96. He says he heard the "sound of a flying rocket" before an explosion occurred. This is what he saw in Grozny last night (Oct. 21):
"Around six o'clock, we were at General Headquarters in Grozny, in the inside courtyard, when we heard two explosions. They happened not far away from us -- about fifty or sixty meters. [It seemed] that the rockets fell on the outside of the building and hit the facade. Later we were told that a similar rocket had hit the Grozny central market. It is in the very center of town. And at that time of day, the market is bustling. We went to hospital number 9, the biggest one in the republic, and there we found a horrible sight. The floor was covered in blood. There was an enormous number of people there -- injured, dead, and dying. New [casualties] arrived every second."
RFE/RL's other correspondent in Grozny, Khasin Raduyev, talked to Chechen official Mumani Sudayev, who said that five rockets hit the center of the city, touching the central market, the parking lot in front of the main post office, the maternity hospital, and a mosque. Sudayev says 137 people were killed.
Russian authorities have given several different versions of events. This morning, the Russian news agency Interfax quoted Russian military sources as saying the attack was just "an invention of the Chechen authorities." Later, Russian military sources explained the blast as a conflict between Chechen terrorist groups. Still later, they were calling it a provocation against Russia.
This afternoon, that explanation was dropped. Russian military spokesman Aleksandr Veklitch said the attack was a special operation against arms dealers.
"According to military intelligence, yesterday in the area of the stock exchange in Grozny was discovered a market where arms were sold to terrorists. As a result of a special operation, the arms and ammunitions and their sellers were destroyed. I want to stress that the operation was conducted without use of army means, and without artillery or aviation."
So far, the Russian military has not admitted to having entered Grozny, so it is unclear how such an operation could have been launched without airplanes.
The Federal Security Service (FSB) gives a different explanation. FSB spokesman Aleksandr Zdanovich said the Chechens were hiding large quantities of arms and ammunition at the market because they thought the Russians would not attack a civilian target. The FSB says this illegal arms depot exploded.
It was mid-day today by the time Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin gave his own explanation at a press conference in Helsinki, where he is meeting with European Union officials. Putin said the explosions in Grozny were unconnected with Russian special operations.
"There is some information concerning a military operation conducted by the Federal forces, and yes, these kind of operations are conducted on a regular basis, and it's very possible that an operation like that was conducted yesterday as well. But it has nothing to do with the events that took place in Grozny, where according to our information, the rebel groups were preparing to conduct an operation on the territory of the Russian Federation, and on the territory of other subjects of the Russian Federation, and civilian targets. And that is precisely what our special forces were trying to prevent."
Political scientist Andrei Piontkowsky, who covers the Chechen issue closely, has harsh words for the Russian government's contradictory statements. In his words, "What is there to say? You can't call this double-speak or double-think anymore. That was a lot more subtle than this. You can only call this plain stupidity."
Heritage Fund expert Yevgeny Volk, however, does see some logic to the official Russian reaction. He says: "They are really set on winning the information war they lost against the Chechens during the last war. So their contradictory information is meant to mix up the Russian public."
Volk says that the military is not prepared for the information coming from independent sources. He says the generals' first reaction is always to deny everything, but when they realize that information is getting out anyway, they begin to release half-explanations.
Russian television was slow to report the explosions in Grozny. While Western broadcasters were showing images of the dead in Grozny's market, Russian television was showing images of smiling Russian soldiers stationed in the region.
When Russian television did begin to cover the blasts, they were hesitant to report them as a Russian attack. Private station NTV said it was "alleged by foreign media and Chechen authorities" that Russian rockets were responsible for the explosions. But the station then gave heavy coverage to Russian authorities' denials.