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As Hit Men Strike, Concern Grows Among Chechen Exiles

Anzor Maskhadov has accused authorities under Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov (pictured) of making threats in order to get them to return to their homeland.
Anzor Maskhadov has accused authorities under Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov (pictured) of making threats in order to get them to return to their homeland.
There's a trail of Chechen blood stretching from Istanbul to Vienna. Now, it risks spilling over into other countries.

In recent months, three Chechen exiles have been assassinated in Istanbul and one in Vienna. Last week, a Chechen man went public claiming to be a hit man in Europe for Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov.

The killings, along with threats of death and blackmail, are raising concerns among exiles from Russia's restive North Caucasus republic, who in Europe total some 130,000, including former guerrilla fighters.

They are also raising fresh questions about whether Russian spies -- 2 1/2 years after Aleksandr Litvinenko's killing in London -- are involved in assassinations of Chechen dissidents abroad.

From Norway, where he lives in exile, the son of slain former Chechen president Aslan Maskhadov told RFE/RL this week about his growing security concerns.

"I am very worried about my relatives who are in Chechnya, because they have been pressured and blackmailed many times," Anzor Maskhadov said.

He claimed he's being pressured to return to Chechnya -- a gesture that would seemingly lend legitimacy to the Kadyrov government. But he said he won't give in to the threats.

"About a week ago, we received a message that it was known that some of our relatives have returned to Chechnya and were supposedly prospering," Maskhadov said. "We were told: 'You have relatives in Chechnya. Are you concerned about them?' It turns out that we were blackmailed."

He said that two or three more such messages were received, and "the last time they said directly that if we don't return then it will be very bad" for Maskhadov and his relatives.

Cross-Border Operation?

Maskhadov's interview with RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Andrei Babitsky came just days after a video was posted on YouTube in which a Chechen man described how he was tasked by Kadyrov to assassinate a Chechen emigre.

In the clip, Ruslan Khalidov claimed he was asked to kill Magomed Ocherhadji, a leader of the large Chechen exile community in Norway. Khalidov, who claimied he did not carry out the killing, said he was tortured and threatened in an attempt to force him to comply. Neither his allegations nor his identity could be verified.

Protesters in Vienna hold photos of the dead and a banner asking "Who's next?" after the death there of Chechen Umar Israilov.
His claims came after yet another Chechen was killed in Istanbul. Musa Atayev, described as a mujahedin for the "Emirate of the Caucasus," was shot dead on February 26 -- the third Chechen killed in Istanbul in the last five months.

The Turkish dailies "Vatan" and "Hurriyet" reported last week that Turkey's National Intelligence Organization had launched a probe into the Chechen murders, with Russian involvement suspected in all three killings.

Questions Of Circumstance

Aslan Ayyubov, a correspondent with RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service, notes that it would be "very difficult" to point the finger at any Russian government agency.

On the other hand, he adds that there are factors that suggest "a lot of coordination" was required to organize the killings.

"It's an extremely complicated operation," Ayyubov says. "It involves, of course, crossing borders, special passports, and, of course, special equipment." He says that if pro-Moscow authorities in Chechnya were involved, "it's extremely unlikely that...[they] could pull it off by themselves."

Turkish media have reported that all three killings were carried out with the same type of gun: a 7.62 MSP pistol. That weapon has been favored by the KGB since the early 1970s because of its small size and relatively silent operation.

The murders of Chechens abroad recall former KGB agent Litvenenko's 2006 killing in London, allegedly by Russian agents using radiation poisoning. They also bring to mind the 2004 murder in Qatar of former Chechen separatist leader Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, in a car-bomb murder case that resulted in Qatari authorities' arrest of two Russian suspects.

No evidence has emerged publicly to link the Kremlin or Kadyrov himself to the latest Chechen killings.

Not Averse To Brutality

Liz Fuller, a veteran RFE/RL Caucasus analyst, says it's quite possible that Russian intelligence signed off on the operations. But otherwise, Kadyrov himself may have ordered the killings and used his own men to carry them out:

"What is difficult to evaluate is whether and to what extent Kadyrov's support in Moscow is slipping," says Liz Fuller, a veteran RFE/RL Caucasus analyst. She notes that those who suspect Kadyrov's involvement are likely to regard the killings as "a desperate attempt on his part to try and demonstrate to Moscow that he is systematically removing any possible threat, either internal or external."

To be sure, Kadyrov's hold on power in Chechnya seems strong, even if it is based on terrorizing locals and imposing his own bizarre brand of Islamic rule in an apparent bid to blunt the appeal of Islamist separatists.

Turncoats have accused Kadyrov in the past of sadistically taking part in the torture of prisoners. Similiar allegations have been made by Russian human rights group Memorial and slain Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya.

Last week, as he left a mosque in central Grozny, Kadyrov justified the "honor killing" of seven young Chechen women. The bullet-riddled bodies of the women, shot by male relatives, were found dumped by a road.

"If a woman runs around and if a man runs around with her, both of them are killed," Kadyrov told reporters in the Chechen capital.

compiled by RFE/RL staff with contributions from RFE/RL's Russian and North Caucasus Services

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