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Death Toll In Grozny Parliament Attack May Have Been Far Higher

Blood stains the sidewalk in front of the parliament building in Grozny on October 19.
Blood stains the sidewalk in front of the parliament building in Grozny on October 19.
More than 20 police and security personnel were killed and more than 40 injured in the October 19 attack by a small group of suicide bombers on the Chechen parliament building in Grozny, a Chechen security official has admitted. The official casualty toll made public immediately after the attack was three dead and 17 injured.

Ten days after the attack, there has still been no official claim of responsibility for it, in contrast to the audacious August 29 raid on Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov's home village of Tsentoroi., which functions as the press service of the North Caucasus Emirate proclaimed by former Chechen Republic Ichkeria President Doku Umarov in October 2007, reported the Tsentoroi attack just hours after it took place, identifying as having spearheaded it three mid-level commanders from among the contingent of Chechen fighters who withdrew their oath of allegiance to Umarov three weeks earlier.

One participant in the Tsentoroi raid sent an SMS to RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service as they retreated, reporting that "Tsentoroi is burning." Other militants called RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service on August 31 and September 1 to provide further details of the operation. And on September 3, a video clip was uploaded to the Internet showing senior Chechen commander Aslanbek Vadalov, together with the Arab fighter Mukhannad, standing by a maquette of the village and indicating which fighters should target which building from which direction.

The failure to claim responsibility for the parliament attack thus raises the question: Which militant faction was behind it? Umarov's? Or the more moderate Islamist faction jointly headed by veteran commanders Vadalov, Khuseyn Gakayev, Tarkhan Gaziyev, and Mukhannad?

Certainly, the parliament attack appears to have been as well planned, timed, and executed as the Tsentoroi raid. The fact that the attackers arrived by taxi, having told the driver they were the personal bodyguards of a parliament deputy, obviated the challenge of negotiating police road blocks and control posts.

Moreover, although several suicide attacks by a lone bomber were perpetrated in Grozny and nearby towns last year, Umarov has never, since taking over supreme command in June 2006, launched a single attack of such daring and sophistication as those on Tsentoroi and the parliament building.

If the moderate wing was, indeed, behind last week's attack, their failure to take responsibility for it may simply reflect the daunting logistical problems in making public any such claim in conditions of heightened security surveillance and, it must be assumed, intensive monitoring of all electronic communications originating on Chechen territory. Recent videos by Vadalov and Gakayev were posted to Chechen websites based in Europe only after an interval of two to three weeks.

On the other hand, there remains the remote possibility that the attack was, after all, Umarov's handiwork, and was intended to serve two purposes. The first is to demonstrate that the military capabilities of the Umarov faction are in no respect inferior to that of the breakaway field commanders. Video footage shot earlier this month of purported new recruits undergoing basic training was clearly meant to send the same message.

The second is to cast doubts on the sincerity of appeals by Vadalov, Gakayev, and Gaziyev to the Chechen nation to unite in the fight for a free and independent Chechnya under Islamic law. Umarov has issued a series of increasingly vindictive verbal attacks on his erstwhile subordinates, culminating in a demand that Gakayev (whom the breakaway camp have elected their leader) return the materiel and funds Umarov had given him earlier.

Umarov's website reported the attack on the parliament building but failed to identify the perpetrators.

The Chechen Interior Ministry, for its part, immediately branded Gakayev the mastermind of the parliament attack. Kadyrov on October 20 claimed that the attackers were acting on orders from exiled Chechen politician Akhmed Zakayev, who had formally acknowledged Gakayev as Chechnya's legitimate wartime leader. Zakayev, for his part, has formally disclaimed any connection with the attack, or any knowledge of who was behind it.

The pro-Moscow Chechen leadership is currently seeking to reassure the population that it is in complete control of the situation. Police have reported the successful thwarting on October 25 of a purported planned bomb attack on a Grozny theater and the discovery on October 26 in a Grozny attic of a belt containing explosives of the type used in suicide bombings.

Also on October 26, several hundred members of pro-Kadyrov youth organizations staged a march through central Grozny to denounce "terrorism." That orchestrated protest culminated in the ritual burning of portraits of the alleged organizers of the parliament bombing. The protest participants identified Umarov, together with Vadalov, Gakayev and Zakayev, as responsible for that attack.

About This Blog

This blog presents analyst Liz Fuller's personal take on events in the region, following on from her work in the "RFE/RL Caucasus Report." It also aims, to borrow a metaphor from Tom de Waal, to act as a smoke detector, focusing attention on potential conflict situations and crises throughout the region. The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.


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