Russia braces for wave of Islamic terrorism

More than 70 die in another bombing

September 14, 1999|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- Frightened Muscovites stood in the mud and cold rain yesterday, wondering when the next bomb would come and whom it would kill. They talked, cried and argued, agreeing on one terrible conclusion: A war of Islamic terrorism has begun here.

The bomb that exploded early yesterday in an ordinary Moscow neighborhood killed more than 70 people and turned an eight-story, yellow-brick apartment building into a heap of smoldering rubble. It was the third Russian apartment building blown up in 10 days; more than 200 fathers, mothers and children were killed, and the number was certain to rise as rescuers picked through the latest tangle of lethal concrete slabs.

Mayor Yuri Luzhkov and other authorities blamed Islamic terrorists based in the breakaway territory of Chechnya who have spread their fight to neighboring Dagestan. This bombing, they said, made it clear there would be more.

Experts said the terrorists most likely are part of a force of 10,000 extremists in Chechnya, supported by powerful Islamic fundamentalist forces Pakistan, Iran and other countries through the notorious Osama bin Laden.

"No one can feel safe in Moscow now," Yelena G. Petrova, 53, cried out from among a small knot of nervous onlookers. "When is my turn? Tonight? Tomorrow?"

She stood with other residents of eight-story yellow brick apartment buildings crowded along Kashirskoye Shosse. When they heard the explosion just after 5 a.m. yesterday, they knew exactly what had happened: A pattern had been set, and they were part of it.

Now, as they listened to the drone of saws chewing through cement, watched cranes lift slabs of prefabricated walls and smelled the acrid smoke clouding the futile attempts at rescue, they felt vulnerable and afraid. Though no one has claimed responsibility, this explosion made it all clear.

Petrova shivered in her thin pink raincoat. She tried to explain it: "The Chechens told us: `You destroyed Grozny. We'll destroy Moscow.' "

She bowed in the general direction of the Kremlin, less than six miles to the north. "Thank you, Yeltsin," she said.

She and many Russians blame President Boris N. Yeltsin for the war that began in December 1994, with Russian tanks assaulting Grozny, the capital of rebellious Chechnya. When the war ended in 1996, Grozny had been bombed to destruction, thousands of soldiers and civilians had died, Russia was forced to retreat, and Chechnya had become a training ground for Islamic militants.

Troublemaking states, including Iran and Pakistan, recognized fertile territory. They trained and sustained the fighters in Chechnya, grooming them for terrorism, says Yossef Bodansky, director of the Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare for the U.S. House of Representatives.

That support was channeled through bin Laden, whom the U.S. blames for orchestrating terrorist attacks around the world, including those against the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania last year.

Iran, Chechnya's first sponsor, was inhibited by its desire for Russian technology and curbed the impulses to place bombs in Moscow during the Chechen war, Bodansky said in an interview yesterday. The more aggressive Pakistan forces gradually took over primary sponsorship of Islamic militants in Chechnya, Bodansky said, controlling them through bin Laden.

"They don't want to be bombed in retaliation," he said of states such as Pakistan, which secretly uses bin Laden to carry out their interests.

"Preparations for this outburst have been taking place for more than a year now," Bodansky said. "Islamabad's interest is in flaring up the entire region and creating strategic mayhem. Hence the expert terrorists have been unleashed. This is only the beginning."

Bodansky said there are about 10,000 fighters in Chechnya, including Afghan, Arab and Pakistani volunteers. Terrorists have been trained in Pakistan and Afghanistan, along with a few in Iran and Sudan, he said. And by 1996 there was extensive evidence of stockpiles of explosives throughout Russia, particularly in the main cities.

"Chechnya and Dagestan have their own interests," he said. Militants there want to revive an old and cherished vision of an Islamic state, said Bodansky, who has just published a book, "Bin Laden: The Man Who Declared War on America."

The terrorism here will only escalate, he predicted.

Vyacheslav Izmailov, a retired Russian army major who writes about Chechnya for Novaya Gazeta, made a similar assessment. Izmailov, who has extensive contacts in Chechnya because of his efforts to free Russian soldiers held hostage there, said in an interview yesterday that two Chechen commanders, Shirvani and Shamil Basayev, had recruited about 30 terrorists to place bombs in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Rostov-on-Don.

Izmailov said that the Chechens recruited Slavic-looking men who wouldn't attract attention, rather than Chechens or others with dark, Caucasian features. He said Khattab promised to pay $5,000 for each of 10 bombings.

"Each terrorist has rented an apartment," Izmailov said, and the explosives will be detonated in the first-floor or basements of the apartments. "This is total terror. It's possible anywhere."

"Terrorism has declared war on us, the people of Russia," Yeltsin declared in a somber television address. "I have already issued the necessary orders."

His prime minister, Vladimir Putin, vowed that police would watch all 30,000 apartment buildings in Moscow and said police from across Russia would be brought to Moscow to help check on temporary registrations, especially those of Chechens.

"This is no longer a challenge to the state, this is a challenge to the nation," Putin said. "That is why the response must be a corresponding one. It must be a super tough one."

He put all citizens on alert. Late last night, residents who had seen men carrying huge sacks into the basement of yet another apartment building called police, who found a large cache of explosives.

Pub Date: 9/14/99

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