Moscow in a muddle over Grozny attack

Rockets' devastation followed by denials, veiled explanations

October 23, 1999|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- Deliberately or not, Russian military leaders and politicians gave varied, incomplete and inconsistent accounts yesterday of the explosions that tore through central Grozny Thursday evening, killing more than 100 people and seriously injuring scores of others.

Those who might be in a position to know what happened and who was responsible spoke in many voices. There were flat denials and what seemed to be carefully worded denials. There was a hedged acknowledgment, and there were unsupported insinuations.

The Chechens said rockets came from the direction of Dagestan and landed in a central market, in a maternity hospital, near a mosque and in two other places. A local reporter working for the Associated Press said witnesses told him they had heard something coming through the air before the explosion at the market.

The Russian response to the Chechens' accusations, filtering out during the day from various ministries and locations, was nowhere near as straightforward:

Yesterday morning, Col. Alexander Veklich, an army spokes man in the town of Mozdok, military headquarters for the northern Caucasus, said the market was destroyed in a "special operation." Intelligence had learned that arms and ammunition were being stored and distributed at the market, he said. He stressed that the operation employed "non-army techniques and involved no artillery or aviation."

He did not provide details but said there had been no civilian casualties.

* A short while later, a statement from the Ministry of Defense in Moscow said, "No strikes, rocket or air, were delivered on Grozny." It said "disinformation" being circulated about the blasts was a "malicious provocation." The defense minister, Igor Sergeyev, later repeated that statement before parliament.

* "We have no information that this was a special operation by federal forces," said Nikolai Petrushev, chief of the Federal Security service, the successor to the KGB. "A weapons depot was located there, and maybe that explains the explosion."

* In Helsinki, Finland, at a meeting with representatives of European Union nations, Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin said that Russia's special services had been carrying out an operation in the region but that it had no connection with the market explosion. He, too, spoke of the market as a weapons depot used by Chechen fighters, whom he calls "bandit formations."

* The Itar-Tass news agency quoted an otherwise unidentified "former Chechen security official" last night as saying that the market explosion occurred while ammunition was being loaded into a truck and hinting that it was a provocation by the Chechens.

It all added up to a familiar script that seems to follow nearly every public act of violence here. Theories and explanations are bandied about until it becomes doubtful that the truth will ever be known. Intentionally or not, suspicion flourishes, sometimes because officials are misinformed. Others lie.

Despite any number of pronouncements, for instance, no one has gotten to the bottom of the political killings here, or of the explosions that destroyed apartment houses in Moscow and elsewhere last month, or of what brought on the attacks by Islamic rebels on towns in Dagestan in August that triggered the current conflict.

The same could be true of the Grozny explosions.

Sowing panic?

Outside of official circles, some wondered whether the Russian forces were trying to sow panic among Chechen civilians, inducing them to flee so that the fighting against rebels wouldn't be complicated by noncombatants getting in the way. Some officials' comments, by this theory, could have been directed at trying to amplify the confusion.

Mikhail Lyubimov, a retired KGB colonel who has written a book on the former security and espionage agency, asked what the special services could stand to gain from such an operation. He suggested that missiles intended for some other target went astray and hit civilians.

Viktor Baranets, a well-informed reporter for the Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper who turned to journalism after a 30-year career in the army, wrote an article for today's edition in which his sources focus on two possible explanations.

Reasonable supposition

The first, and most likely, is the simplest. Judging by the shrapnel shown on Chechen television, by witness accounts and by the explosions in five locations in the city, it is reasonable to suppose, he writes, that a rocket attack was launched from nearby Dagestan.

The other possible explanation, which would accord with Veklich's statement, is that Chechen fighters had made a deal to buy ammunition from Russian troops, which is not uncommon. The difference this time, according to the theory, is that the Russians included some sort of radio-controlled explosive in the crates of ammunition and blew it up when they believed the shipment had been dropped off at an arms depot. That would not explain why there were explosions at the hospital, the mosque and elsewhere.

In Grozny yesterday, relatives tended to the wounded and prepared to bury the dead, many of them women and children. In television interviews, many expressed bitterness and no doubts about the explosions. That might be the long-term legacy of what happened Thursday night.

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