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Former Chechen Commander Gunned Down In Berlin; Eyes Turn To Moscow (And Grozny)

German investigators search the site where Chechen exile Zelimkhan Khangoshvili was shot dead in a Berlin park on August 23.
German investigators search the site where Chechen exile Zelimkhan Khangoshvili was shot dead in a Berlin park on August 23.

When Zelimkhan Khangoshvili sought refuge in Germany in 2016, he was fleeing a series of assassination attempts and seeking distance from his past life, a decade earlier, as a company commander battling Russian troops in the Second Chechen War.

He and his family settled in Berlin, where he regularly attended Friday Prayers at a local mosque. On August 23, as he left the mosque and walked along a wooded path, a man rode up to him on a bicycle and shot him twice in the head, killing him nearly instantly.

Khangoshvili was the latest victim in a series of mysterious killings over many years that have targeted Chechen exiles and Russians who have clashed with either the Kremlin or with Russian security services.

German police have arrested a Russian man, and German media have cited unnamed official sources as saying investigators are looking into whether the murder was in fact a political assassination.

Khangoshvili's acquaintances, meanwhile, said there was no doubt it was a hit job, targeting him for his role as a military commander in Chechnya in the early 2000s. Some even criticized the German government for not approving his request for asylum.

"The fact that he fought in the Second Chechen War, as a mid-level commander, that's enough, I think, for him to have been hunted," Saikhan Muzayev, an acquaintance of Khangoshvili, told Current Time, the Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA.

"He was always saying [that his life was in danger]," Ekkehard Maass, director of the German-Caucasian Society, a German charitable organization, said in an interview. "For me it's clear that the trail leads to Moscow."

In this undated photo, Zelimkhan Khangoshvili (right) is shown seated alongside Aslan Maskhadov (left), who served briefly as president of Chechnya in the 1990s. (file photo)
In this undated photo, Zelimkhan Khangoshvili (right) is shown seated alongside Aslan Maskhadov (left), who served briefly as president of Chechnya in the 1990s. (file photo)

"He was always alarmed," said Tamta Mikeladze, a Georgian human rights lawyer who helped Khangoshvili when he lived in Georgia. "He was always worried that efforts of Russian security agencies to find him were continuing without interruption."

"His murder in Berlin caused concern and deep sorrow" in his home community in Georgia, she said.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov rejected the assertion that the Russian government was involved.

"This, of course, has nothing whatsoever to do with the Russian government, with official agencies," Peskov was quoted by Interfax.

Basayev And Maskhadov

Khangoshvili's roots were in the Pankisi Gorge, a sometimes troubled region of Georgia that is home to an ethnic Chechen community known as the Kist. Many Chechen refugees from Russia have also settled there over the years.

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When Russian armed forces invaded Chechnya in 1999 -- the region had had semiautonomy since the end of the First Chechen War in 1996 -- Khangoshvili joined many Chechen men in the fight. Friends and acquaintances said he commanded a company of a few dozen fighters.

Notably, he fought alongside the notorious field commander Shamil Basayev as well as Aslan Maskhadov, who had briefly served as president of Chechnya.

Chechen rebel leaders Shamil Basayev (left) and Aslan Maskhadov (file photo)
Chechen rebel leaders Shamil Basayev (left) and Aslan Maskhadov (file photo)

Basayev was killed in an explosion in Ingushetia, bordering Chechnya, in 2006. Maskhadov was killed in 2005 in Chechnya during a raid by agents of Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB).

In 2005, with Moscow pressing its offensive, Khangoshvili fled Russia for Georgia, receiving a Georgian passport by using his mother's surname to partially mask his identity, according to Maas and Mikeladze.

He was considered a man of stature and authority within the Pankisi community, which typically numbers around 7,000 but swelled with refugees from Chechnya during the fighting.

In an interview with an organization identified as a Chechen charitable group published on August 26, his older brother, Zurab, said Khangoshvili had survived an attempted abduction in 2008. At that time, he said, a group of individuals in the Pankisi Gorge hatched a plot to kidnap him and take him to Russia.

In 2015, Khangoshvili survived a daylight assassination attempt in central Tbilisi, when he was shot four times in the arm and shoulder.

As a result, he and his relatives asked Georgian authorities for protection, but they rebuffed his requests, according to Mikeladze, the rights lawyer. Moreover, she said, prosecutors did little to fully investigate the assassination attempt.

That is what ultimately led to his decision to flee Georgia, and, after traveling through Ukraine and Poland, to seek asylum in Germany, she said.

"I believe that it's the same people who tried to kill him in Georgia," Zurab was quoted as saying. "Maybe the gunmen were different, but the masterminds were the same: Russia's FSB."

Like Zurab, many Chechens, Russian dissidents, and other observers quickly pointed fingers at Moscow for the killing.

Skripal Comparisons

German media have also speculated that Khangoshvili may have been targeted by Russian security agents, and drew parallels to the 2018 poisoning in England of KGB double agent Sergei Skripal, who was allegedly targeted by Russian military intelligence.

In 2006, President Vladimir Putin signed an order that legalized the killing of people who live outside of Russia and who are deemed to pose a terrorist threat -- essentially, state-authorized assassinations.

In 2008, a website affiliated with the Chechen separatist movement published what it said was an official "hit list" of Chechens that Russian security agencies had compiled. The list was never definitely verified.

Zelimkhan Khangoshvili (file photo)
Zelimkhan Khangoshvili (file photo)

Mikeladze said that Khangoshvili was well-regarded within the Pankisi community, and he also was in good standing with Georgian government agencies. In 2008, he led a unit on a planned mission to the breakaway Georgian region of South Ossetia in support of the Georgian military, which was battling Russian forces.

However, Russian forces quickly overwhelmed Georgian troops and fighting between the two nations was all but over after five days, ending with Russia occupying South Ossetia and later recognizing as independent that region and another breakaway region, Abkhazia. Khangoshvili's unit never deployed.

Maas said that Khangoshvili feared being targeted well before he left Chechnya for Georgia. The aborted mission to enter South Ossetia and fight alongside Georgian troops only added to this.

"Of course, the Russian side did not forgive him for this," Maas told RFE/RL.

German investigators announced on August 24 that they had arrested a 49-year-old Russian citizen, identified by German media as Vadim S. Police divers recovered a Glock 26 pistol that the man allegedly threw into a nearby river, along with the bicycle he was riding.

The Berlin prosecutor's office did not respond to e-mails and a phone call seeking comment.

Settling Of Scores?

But other Chechens have raised the possibility of a settling of scores, related to a violent incident in 2012 in Georgia. The incident involved a shoot-out between gunmen -- some of Chechen descent -- and Georgian security forces, who ordered air strikes and the use of helicopters.

During the standoff, the gunmen took several hostages, and Khangoshvili reportedly cooperated with Georgian security services to free them.

The incident ended in a pitched battle in which nearly a dozen people were killed.

The gunmen, Zurab said in his August 26 interview, were armed and funded by a militia controlled by Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who has quashed the insurgency and pacified the region using brutal human rights abuses, according to activists.

However, a 2012 report by Georgia's public defender pointed to the involvement of Chechen militants -- some of whom had traveled to Georgia from Europe -- who were seeking safe passage to the neighboring Russian region of Daghestan.

The report also suggested a covert Georgian government plan aimed at arming Chechen fighters to return to Chechnya and renew fighting against local and federal Russian forces.

Regardless, the incident, and Khangoshvili's prominent role in it, left a grudge among those whose relatives or allies were killed in the fighting, and some members of Chechnya's diaspora have speculated that the Berlin killing may have been a settling of scores.

Maas, who was close to Khangoshvili and his relatives, denied that was the case, something Mikeladze agreed with.

"There was never any talk of this," Maas told RFE/RL. "He had a tremendous reputation in the Pankisi Gorge because he was a commander in the Second Chechen War and because he was a very moderate and peaceful man."

Other Assassinations

Khangoshvili isn't the first Chechen exile to be killed abroad under suspicious circumstances -- with suspicions falling heavily on Russian agents.

In 2004, two years before Putin officially authorized assassinations abroad, Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, who briefly served as president of Chechnya in the 1990s, was killed in Qatar when a bomb destroyed his SUV. Qatari authorities accused Russian military intelligence of involvement, and two men were sent back to Russia after being convicted and sentenced by a Qatari court.

In 2009, Sulim Yamadayev, who commanded a feared military unit named Vostok and was seen as a rival to Kadyrov, was shot and killed in Dubai. He was one of three members of a prominent clan who had fought against Russian forces in the First Chechen War and later switched to fight alongside the Russians. All three were assassinated.

Also in 2009, Umar Israilov, a former separatist rebel who later became a bodyguard to Kadyrov, was shot and killed outside a market in Vienna. Israilov had publicly accused Kadyrov of involvement in torture and rights abuses.

With reporting by RFE/RL senior correspondent Carl Schreck
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    Mike Eckel

    Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent reporting on political and economic developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and espionage. He's reported on the ground on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the wars in Chechnya and Georgia, and the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis, as well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014.