Terror at Home

Malcolm Gray September 27 1999

Terror at Home

Malcolm Gray September 27 1999

Terror at Home

A series of devastating bomb attacks against apartment blocks spreads fear across Russia


Malcolm Gray

in Moscow

Olga Yershova lives in northwest Moscow, on the opposite side of the sprawling capital from the sites of two devastating and mysterious apartment bombings that killed more than 200 people. But her fear is undiminished by distance. Who might be next? “Moscow sometimes appears to be its normal busy self during the day,” says Yershova, a 41-year-old sales clerk, “but everyone is frightened at night. I have two small daughters and they have begun asking me at bedtime if we

are all going to wake up in the morning.”

It is a common reaction in a city of 10 million that last week looked like it was under siege. On the streets, thousands of heavily armed police guarded subways, schools and other vulnerable public places while checking everything from passports to potential hiding places for explosives. In the rundown southeastern district where

the big bombs, weighing at

least 300 kg each, went off,

residents in similar buildings covered their windows with crossed strips of tape against the force of any further blasts. Across the city, residents formed self-protection committees and drew up lists of volunteers to watch over their buildings.

The blasts in Moscow—and across Russia—already dwarf, in total death toll and sheer terror, a combination of the bomb attacks on the Oklahoma City, Okla., federal building (1994:

168 dead) and New York City’s World Trade Center (1993:

six dead). It is an appalling litany. On Sept. 9, an explosion destroyed a nine-storey Moscow apartment building, killing 94 people. Four days later, another blast six kilometres away levelled an eight-storey block, claiming 118 lives. Three days after that, 17 people died after a parked truck carrying expíosives blew up near an apartment building in the southern city of Volgodonsk. Nor were these the first. Investigators were still looking for connections with an Aug. 31 bomb attack on a Moscow shopping mall, which killed one and injured 40, and with a car bomb attack on a residence housing military families in the troubled southern region of Dagestan, where 64 died on Sept. 4. Last Friday, another bomb attack killed two in an apartment in St. Petersburg, Russia’s second-largest city, but officials initially doubted it was part of the same pattern.

Just who was behind the attacks remained murky. Few Muscovites believed initial suggestions that the city’s notorious criminal gangs—or even gas leaks—might be responsible. Instead, leading government figures were quick to claim that separatists from the breakaway Muslim enclave of Chechnya in the Caucasus were carrying out a campaign of terror across Russia. That suspicion was reinforced by the attacks in nearby Volgodonsk and Dagestan. Moscow police came down hard on the more than one million Caucasians in the capital, mounting massive searches and roundups of darker-skinned residents. Yet some cynical analysts argued that the Kremlin itself, awash in allegations of corruption and scandals, might use the bombings as a pretext for declaring a state of emergency and cancelling parliamentary elections that are scheduled to be held in December.

In a national TV broadcast, President Boris Yeltsin avoided linking the bomb attacks to Chechen-led Islamic militants who have been fighting federal troops in neighbouring Dagestan since August. Yeltsin may have been aware that some members of Russia’s security services, who do suspect the Chechens, also believe that the terrorists use less conspicuous Slav operatives to plant the explosives. “The enemy does not have a conscience, shows no sorrow and is without honour,” said Yeltsin, who sat slumped in his chair, speaking slowly and slurring some of his words. “It has no face, nationality or belief. Let me stress—no nationality, no belief.”

That formulation cast a wide enough net to take in Osama bin Laden, the millionaire Saudi Arabian terrorism supporter. Russian military intelligence and security agents claim he has contributed millions of dollars to the struggle to break Russian rule over the Caucasus. “It is obvious to us,” said Yeltsins latest prime minister, Vladimir Putin, “that both in Dagestan and in Moscow, we are dealing not with independent fighters but rather with well-trained, international saboteurs.”

Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, a potential presidential contender next year, didn’t hold anything back in fixing blame. “We say that the source of these explosions lies with Chechen bandits,” charged Luzhkov, who has long advocated isolating Chechnya behind a heavily fortified and guarded frontier ring—a sort of Berlin Wall of the Caucasus. He brushed off denials from the Chechen government.

Moscow’s relations with the Chechen capital of Grozny, never good since the breakaway republic defeated the Russian military and won de facto independence in 1996, have been strained to the breaking point recently. The Chechen government insists it is not involved in the fighting in Dagestan. But that didn’t stop Russian warplanes from bombing villages inside Chechnya in early September in an attempt to cut off supplies to about 2,000 Islamic fighters who invaded the neighbouring republic for the second time in little more than a month. And late last week, Russian forces launched fresh strikes against suspected guerrilla bases.

Leading those well-armed fundamentalists, who want to unite Chechnya and Dagestan under strict Muslim rule, was a man who is widely hated and feared in Russia: Shamil

Basayev. The bearded, 34-year-old warlord was one of the rebels’ best field commanders during the 20-month Chechen conflict. He gained particular notoriety by mounting a 1995 hostage-taking raid into southern Russia that left more than 100 civilians dead. The Russian army has been slow to release casualty figures from Dagestan. But before Basayevs fighters retreated across the largely unmarked border to their bases in Chechnya last week, they had killed at least 300 soldiers on the federal side. And by turning large sections of Dagestan into a war zone they have renewed questions about the Russian army’s combat readiness, the Kremlin’s ability to hold on to the Caucasus and even Yeltsin’s fitness to rule Russia.

Basayev and his associates have denied that they are responsible for the terror campaign in Russia. “We are carrying out an open war with Russia’s armed forces,” declared one of Basayevs staunchest lieutenants, a Saudi Arabian living in Chechnya who uses the name Khattab. “We have never even considered killing sleeping, peaceful citizens with bombs and shells.” Nevertheless, Igor Zubov, Russia’s deputy minister of the interior, maintained that investigators have tapes of telephone conversations that link Khattab and Basayev to the bombings in Moscow. “We can definitely say that they were behind the blasts,” said Zubov. Police also seized about 17 tonnes of smuggled explosives disguised as bags of sugar from a factory in the North Caucasus region. It was found in the same district as the two apartment bombings—with about two tonnes missing.

Despite those claims of progress, residents standing guard over their homes at night were aware that explosives are widely available in Russia—and bombs were still going off. Unless investigators come up with a real break in the case, many scared and tired ordinary Russians believe they will simply have to look out for themselves. EH