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Chechnya: What Is Driving Women To Suicide Missions?

The dual suicide blasts at a Moscow rock concert this weekend are the latest example of a relatively new and disturbing phenomenon -- female suicide bombers. The Kremlin was quick to blame the attacks on Chechen extremists, and says Islamic radicalism is on the rise in the republic. But human rights groups say that such attacks are a result of Russia's merciless campaign in Chechnya. They say it is deepening the anger and despair that has driven Chechen women to launch suicide attacks -- something that is antithetical to both Islam and traditional Chechen culture.

Prague, 9 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Chechen suicide bombings are a relatively new phenomenon, and bear a chilling distinction from similar attacks elsewhere: Nearly all the Chechen suicide bombers have been women.

This weekend's dual bombing at a Moscow open-air concert underscored the trend. Both bombers were women. One has been identified as Zalikhan Elikhadzhieva, a 20-year-old resident of the Chechen village of Kurchaloi.

Newspapers and magazines this week featured a photograph of Elikhadzhieva, lying on the pavement, a clenched fist lying on her chest. The first of the bombers, Elikhadzhieva failed in her mission when the explosives strapped to her belt failed to properly detonate, injuring several bystanders but killing only herself.

The second attacker successfully blew herself up several minutes later, killing 13 concertgoers. A fourteenth person died yesterday in the hospital, bringing the total death count, including the two bombers, to 16.

It is not the first attack by Chechen female suicide bombers. Women strapped with explosives were among the Chechen fighters who seized a Moscow theater in last year's hostage drama. In May of this year, Chechen women were blamed for at least two suicide attacks, in which more than 50 people were killed. Last month, a third bomber -- also believed to be a woman -- blew herself up on a bus carrying Russian troops to Chechnya. At least 18 people died.

Libkan Bazaeva, a representative of the Russian human rights group Memorial, is based in Ingushetia, a Russian republic bordering Chechnya. She told RFE/RL that suicide attacks run counter to every aspect of traditional Chechen beliefs.

"Firstly, it is against Islam," she said. "Moreover, it runs against the characteristic traits of the women of the Caucasus -- particularly a Chechen woman, whose role is to safeguard the family values and educate the children. She is considered the savior of everything 'alive' in our society. I've known all my life that suicide is a mortal sin; it is a crime against God, against a human being, against oneself. It was forbidden to bury [suicides] in cemeteries."

So what has driven Chechen women to become suicide bombers? Bazaeva says Moscow's brutal four-year war in the republic has left scores of widows who, out of desperation or anger, see suicide attacks as the only way to avenge their ruined lives.

Germany's dpa news agency quoted Russian military officials as saying more than 1,800 Chechen men have been killed in the past half-year alone. Russian forces in the republic have been repeatedly accused of torture, rape, and extrajudicial killings.

All this, CIS Anti-Terrorism Center head Valerii Verchagin said, means there are growing numbers of women "who have nothing left to lose." In an interview with the Russian daily "Nezavisimaya gazeta," Verchagin said Chechen war widows "want revenge even at the cost of their own lives."

In the Middle East -- which itself has seen growing numbers of female suicide bombers -- Palestinian women are often forced or coerced into terrorist missions. Thomas de Waal, an analyst at the British-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting and the author of "Chechnya: Calamity in the Caucasus," said a similar phenomenon may now be occurring in Chechnya.

"[Maybe] someone like [radical field commander] Shamil Basaev is deliberately trying to encourage women [to participate in suicide missions] because they are easier to infiltrate into [Russian cities], because the police will more easily detain North Caucasian men and women are harder to arrest," de Waal said.

That theory appears to have merit in Russia, where the "Kommersant" newspaper reported yesterday that Chechen rebels had forced 20-year-old Elikhadzhieva to take up arms six months ago to avenge the death of a relative.

De Waal agrees that suicide in any form is antithetical to traditional Chechen beliefs. But he said the use of females in suicide missions is not surprising. Women, he added, have always played a more important social role in Chechnya than is traditionally believed.

Chechen women, for example, have long engaged in military campaigns side-by-side with men. The most famous of them is Taymashka Molova, a Chechen field commander who spent a decade fighting Tsarist forces in Chechnya's war against Russia in the 19th century. Captured in 1842, Molova was later released by Tsar Nicholas I in recognition of her bravery.

That tradition continues to this day. Even before the recent string of suicide attacks, women fighters participated in many Chechen resistance groups fighting Russian troops in the current campaign.

Bazaeva of Memorial said in many instances, federal forces have begun to treat Chechen women as combatants, often targeting them for killing and kidnapping. She said the growing violence against women by Russian troops has become "part of the system."

The conflict does not look to be settled anytime soon. Russian President Vladimir Putin used unusually strong rhetoric in condemning the weekend attacks, saying Russia would never back down from Chechen extremists and that terrorists "must be flushed out of cellars and caves where they are still hiding and they must be destroyed."

De Waal said he is disappointed by the Russian reaction. Such tough talk, he said, is startlingly similar to that of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who countered Palestinian suicide attacks with mounting military might before the recent adoption of the peace "road map."

He said Russia's attitude reminds him "of the way Sharon promised to solve the security problems of Israel by being tough. The suicide bombings continued [nonetheless], and I imagine the same pattern will happen here. It's not going to be a deterrent to suicide bombers to say, 'We will repress you even further.' They have nothing to lose, these people."

(RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service contributed to this report.)