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Russia’s Chechnya Leader Says Death Squads Operate

Times Staff Writer

In a sharp preelection turnabout, the Kremlin-appointed head of Russia’s war-torn republic of Chechnya declared Thursday that death squads associated with security forces were seeking to prolong the conflict through abductions and terror.

“People continue to go missing in Chechnya. They are taken away in the middle of the night. Their bodies are not found and they are never seen again,” Akhmad Kadyrov, the republic’s acting president, said in a letter he released to reporters in Grozny, the Chechen capital.

In the letter, addressed to Russia’s top law enforcement officials, Kadyrov added: “I have no doubts that those who are taking people away at night are the so-called third force, the party of supporters of a horrible war. Through their crimes, they maintain tension in the republic, and their hands are stained with the blood of innocent people.”

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The force is made up of “kidnappers in armored vehicles,” he said. “They are a death squad.”

Human rights critics of Moscow’s policies in the Caucasus republic have long complained of the operation of death squads, and many critics of the war believe it continues in part because some on the Russian side do not want to see the conflict settled -- presumably because they are profiting from it through various forms of corruption. But to have Moscow’s handpicked strongman suddenly appear to endorse those views was remarkable.

Russian rights advocates described Kadyrov’s declaration as a belated recognition of the squads’ existence and an obvious campaign ploy aimed at the Oct. 5 Chechen presidential election, in which he is considered a leading candidate.

The Kremlin’s previously firm public support for Kadyrov has weakened in recent weeks. It was not clear whether his letter marked a form of lashing back at Moscow and distancing himself from its leaders.

It might instead be a maneuver undertaken with Moscow’s permission in a bid to shore up his waning popularity.

Also, Kadyrov has himself been accused of running death squads, and the letter has the effect of pointing the finger elsewhere.

By official count, 267 people were abducted in Chechnya in the first six months of this year, with only five cases solved, said Movsar Khamidov, Chechnya’s first deputy prime minister, in a statement to the Russian news agency Interfax.

In his letter, Kadyrov called on the federal government to create a commission to search for the missing and punish the death squad members. “The main thing is that we should tell the people of Chechnya the truth and save them from night terror,” he said.

Death squads in Chechnya “are not a myth at all,” said Tatyana I. Kasatkina, head of the human rights group Memorial. “They are a very horrible reality. But there is confusion as to who stands behind these squads. Some believe it is the federal troops. Some accuse Kadyrov’s men of actually acting as death squads. So I am sure Kadyrov spoke about them only out of political necessity.... He has to do and say something unusual to whitewash his dark image.”

Anna Politkovskaya, a political analyst and Chechnya specialist for the Novaya Gazeta newspaper, said that death squads “have been spreading terror through the republic for the last three years” but that Kadyrov “until now bluntly and doggedly denied their presence and sinister role.”

Chechens exercised self-rule after defeating Russian troops in a 1994-96 war, but Russian forces returned in 1999 and have been fighting pro-independence guerrillas since.

Courts based on Muslim religious law functioned in the republic during its period of self-rule. At the time, Kadyrov was Chechnya’s top religious leader. Only since 2000 has he been more associated with pro-Russian policies than with Chechnya’s independence struggle, and many observers in Moscow say the Kremlin cannot trust him to remain on its side.

The squads in Chechnya were originally formed by Russian military intelligence to kill rebels and criminals without taking them to trial, Politkovskaya said.

“Now for at least a year, many people in Chechnya believe that Kadyrov’s security force is responsible for a lot of deaths and kidnappings,” she said. “They take advantage of the situation in the republic to settle their scores of all kinds with Kadyrov’s enemies or political opponents.”

It is obvious that Kadyrov’s letter was not prompted by new information, Politkovskaya said.

“What could have happened overnight to become an eye-opener for him?” she said. “This statement is nothing but an awkward and all too obvious campaign move.... He is quite panicky now, and he is dead worried that the Kremlin might ditch him.”

Times staff writer Sergei L. Loiko contributed to this report.


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