Precisely what happened during the fighting early yesterday morning in Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov's home village of Tsentoroi remains unclear. But the version promulgated by insurgency websites is far more credible than the contradictory accounts Kadyrov himself has given.
The insurgency website Kavkazcenter.com gave periodic, increasingly detailed updates
throughout the day. It claims that up to 60 militants in three detachments, led by amirs Zaurbek, Makhran, and Abdurakhman (all three are featured in this portrait gallery
), penetrated the village at around 4:30 a.m. local time, destroyed the homes of 10 of Kadyrov's closest associates, killed up to 15 of Kadyrov's men, and blew up an armored personnel carrier before retreating an hour later, taking with them quantities of weaponry. The fighters sent an SMS message to RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service at 6:30 a.m. local time saying, "Tsentoroi is burning."
Speaking three hours after the attack, Kadyrov claimed initially that the attacking force numbered between 15-30 fighters, of whom 12 were killed. He said his security forces had advance warning of the planned attack, permitted the fighters to enter the village and disperse, and then cornered them.
Chechen Interior Ministry sources confirmed that the militants entered the village and set fire to several homes. But Kadyrov claimed
in his personal blog later on August 29 that his men opened fire on the fighters as they were approaching the outskirts of the village and that the fighters were swiftly surrounded and killed.
An unnamed Chechen security official confirmed to Kavkaz-Uzel
that at least one of the fighters killed was from Zaurbek Avdorkhanov's group.
Official claims that there were 15-30 attackers are not credible. The insurgents are not amateurs, or mad: One would have had to be both to launch an attack with so few men on one of the most heavily guarded villages in Chechnya, as the website Kavkaz-uzel quoted
one local expert as pointing out.
By the same token, the insurgents' account of a three-pronged attack is in line with the objectives they reportedly set -- and accomplished. Their reported losses -- chechenpress.org
quoted Zaurbek as saying eight fighters were killed -- are credible. And their unsubstantiated claim, citing an unnamed Tsentoroi resident, that the dead men Kadyrov identified as slain attackers were young men who had been held for some time
in Kadyrov's private prison in Tsentoroi is entirely in keeping with what is known of his treatment of anyone suspected of abetting, or even sympathizing with the insurgency.
If the Kavkazcenter account is true, then the August 29 operation was, as Moscow-based expert Aleksei Malashenko described it to "The Guardian," a very painful blow against both Kadyrov and Moscow.
It was the largest-scale and most audacious attack launched in Chechnya for over a year. It sends the message that despite reports earlier this month of a rift
within the insurgency ranks, the Chechnya-based fighters are still a force to be reckoned with, even though it is not clear whether the attack was ordered by insurgency commander and self-styled leader of the North Caucasus Emirate Doku Umarov or by the four Chechnya-based commanders (Aslambek, Tarkhan, Khuseyn and Mukhannad) who withdrew their support for him following his disavowal of video footage in which he announced his resignation to relinquish the leadership and enjoined fighters to pledge support for one of them as his chosen successor.
Moreover, the insurgency manpower is clearly in excess of the "maximum 70 fighters" Kadyrov claimed
on August 10. They have few problems moving freely on densely populated territory controlled by the enemy. They now have a strategist experienced enough to plan and coordinate a three-pronged attack, and three mid-level commanders capable of carrying it out with minimal losses. They have quantities of light weaponry -- Kalashnikovs, machine-guns, sniper rifles, and rocket-propelled grenade launchers (RPGs). The website hunafa.com recently posted footage of a lone masked fighter opening fire from an RPG on the 503rd Motor Rifle Division on August 13.
The Chechen resistance managed to retake Grozny from a numerically superior Russian force in August 1996 armed with only such light weapons. But the insurgency has not launched a large-scale attack involving hundreds of fighters since the death of veteran military strategist Shamil Basayev in July 2006, which raises the question: Who among the current leaders has the know-how to plan such an operation?
Yesterday's attack nonetheless is of huge symbolic significance for the message it sends to one of the most powerful and feared men in Russia: "You can run, but you can't hide, even on your own native turf." Whether it heralds a shift in tactics, at least in Chechnya if not elsewhere in the North Caucasus, is too early to predict.