Terror stalks the Caucasus in faceless, borderless war

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

This is a place where gangs with masked faces come out of the darkness to take the young men away.

Sometimes the bodies turn up with broken limbs, bruises, torn-away fingernails and burns. Sometimes the captives are placed under arrest officially and end up in jail. Lately, many simply disappear.

Russia's hidden war against anti-government rebels across the Caucasus Mountains has reached a terrible intensity here in the small, mostly Muslim Russian republic of Ingushetia.

Day after day, insurgents attack police and government officials with ambushes and bombings. And day after day, security forces unleash what human rights activists describe as a campaign of killings, abductions and torture in their efforts to force calm upon the land.

Now Ingushetia is struggling under the weight of a new terror, one that seeps over the mountains from Chechnya, a neighboring mostly Muslim Russian republic.

Having brutally squashed dissent in his own restive republic, Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, a young Kremlin-backed former rebel known for his ruthless style of rule, is sending his notorious squads of fighters to hunt down rebels in Ingushetia.

With Kadyrov's authority creeping over the boundary, Ingushetia has become a land without accountability. Killings may be attributed to the Russian government, local authorities, separatist rebels or Chechens. Lives disappear in the tangle of overlain bureaucracy and shrugged shoulders.

"Everybody is scared now, because the Chechens can do whatever they want," said Varvara Pakhomenko, a Caucasus expert with Demos, a Russian human rights group. "Even in 2007, when the mass disappearances started, people weren't afraid; they'd look you in the eyes. But now, when they realize Kadyrov is legally, officially there, they have become really, really scared."

Faustian deal

Less than a decade back, trapped in a cycle of war and retribution in the breakaway territory of Chechnya, Russia's then-President Vladimir Putin is believed to have struck a Faustian deal with the Kadyrovs, a clan of onetime rebels willing to switch sides: They could create a fiefdom as long as the republic stayed quiet.

Since following his assassinated father into the Chechen presidency in 2007, Kadyrov, 32, has lavished Moscow's cash on rebuilding his republic's bomb-flattened capital, Grozny. He has also constructed an elaborate cult of personality and, according to human rights activists, has terrorized the population with abductions, torture, extrajudicial killings and secret prisons.

On June 22, the Ingush president was seriously wounded in a suicide bombing. Within a few hours, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev publicly ordered Kadyrov to "intensify" his "pursuit of militants."

Two days later, Kadyrov appeared in the Ingush capital and announced that "when we hunt for criminals, there can be no borders." Joint Ingush-Chechen security operations had been approved by Moscow and would intensify, he said.

The message was plain: With the Kremlin's blessing, Kadyrov's controversial methods of pacifying Chechnya were being exported to the surrounding region. To many observers, Ingushetia now stands as a test of the Kremlin's willingness to let Kadyrov's power grow to keep pace with his ambitions.

"They've created a Frankenstein they can no longer control," Pakhomenko said. "Because if you sack Ramzan Kadyrov now, Chechnya will plunge into complete disorder. The Kremlin has become hostage to a situation they created themselves."

In interviews before she was abducted and killed, human rights investigator Natalia Estemirova compared the atmosphere in Kadyrov's Chechnya to the Soviet Union under Stalin. Last month, she was snatched off the street outside her home in the Chechen capital.

Her body was dumped in Ingushetia.

A son is seized

It was 5:30 on a July morning when the men pounded on the door of the cramped Albakov apartment in this dusty scrap of a village a few miles from the Chechen line.

"Passport check!" the nine intruders shouted to the groggy family. "Show us your documents." Two of them wore civilian clothes; the rest wore camouflage and toted submachine guns. They said they were police officers from the Ingush city of Nazran, the family later said.

But they refused to show any identification and, among themselves, they spoke Chechen. Only one of the men appeared to be Ingush, and another Russian. The rest, the family was certain, were Chechens.

They seized 26-year-old Batyr Albakov, led him outside in his bedroom slippers and black jeans and shoved him into one of the silver Ladas parked on the road.

"They held him by the arms and led him out," said his mother, 52-year-old widow Petimat Albakova. "I shouted, 'I will follow you! I will see where you take him!' I was holding the door of the car, but they sped off. I was screaming, 'Let me come with you!' "

Her son was gone.

The anguished woman set out to hunt for her son. She gave the authorities the Chechen license numbers she'd memorized, and begged to help investigators make composite sketches; she remembered some of the men's faces. Come back after lunch, they told her. Come back later. They never made any sketches.

Her son Batyr was an engineer at the airport in Magas, the Ingush capital. In February, he was promoted to head of his department; when he vanished, he was preparing to start postgraduate studies. He was well known and well liked. His brother works in the Emergency Ministry; one sister is a doctor, the other a lawyer.

Eleven days after Albakov vanished, a sister found a news report on the Internet: The rebel Batyr Albakov had been killed in a shootout with authorities, the report said. He was dressed in camouflage and carried a gun. Their mother raced to the police -- was it true?

Yes, she was told. They brought his body to the morgue this morning; we were going to inform you tomorrow.

When the body was turned over, the family took photographs to document extensive marks of torture. Albakov's arm was visibly broken. His right shoulder was charred and eroded, apparently burned. His torso and arms bore large streaks of eggplant-colored bruises.

Chechen officials and state news agencies said Albakov was killed during a shootout in a forest. They said he'd been on the federal wanted list for years. The family denies that he was a rebel.

Contacted last week, a spokeswoman for the Ingush Interior Ministry said Albakov was killed in an operation carried out by the FSB, the national intelligence agency that is the modern-day successor to the Soviet KGB.

But the spokesman for the FSB's Ingushetia directorate denied agency involvement in the alleged shootout.

"The operation in the course of which he was killed was carried out by the Interior Ministry," spokesman Damir Rossin said. "They may give you more information."

Each bureaucracy points to another. Nobody knows anything. You look closely and the case falls apart. This is just one disappearance among hundreds.

'Wall of silence'

They took her body to Ingushetia. To many of her colleagues, this is one of the most damning aspects of Natalia Estemirova's slaying. When kidnappers cross from one republic to the next, it muddies jurisdiction and entangles a wider range of suspects. But it's also a brazen hint of official collusion. The Chechen-Ingush border is a heavily militarized zone; the killers would have had to pass through checkpoints.

Pakhomenko, the human rights activist, recently traveled to the village where Estemirova's body was discovered. She hoped to interview residents, but came away with nothing but claims of ignorance.

"It's a tiny place; they couldn't help but know. But we came into a wall of silence," she said.

"The Chechens are using the same methods they used in their own republic," said Magomed Mutsolgov, director of the MAShR human rights organization in Ingushetia. "Nobody can stop them, nobody can check them. They do what they want."

The number of people abducted and killed in Ingushetia has climbed steadily in recent years, according to MAShR's investigations: 96 in 2006, and 124 the following year. In 2008, the number nearly doubled to 212; this year, the figure has already reached 210. In the last seven years, 1,000 people have turned up dead, and nearly 200 have never been found.

Not a single kidnapper has been brought to court, the organization says.

"What's happening already, we can call a civil war," Mutsolgov said. "Because, you understand, the circle is closed. The authorities have abducted and killed civilians, let alone fighting the rebels. And somebody stands behind every kidnapped and killed person, and this somebody wants revenge. They begin to shoot and kill security officers. This is a vicious circle."

At the head of Chechnya's anti-terrorist operations in Ingushetia sits Adam Delimkhanov, a cousin of the Chechen president and a lawmaker in Russia's State Duma, the lower house of the parliament. It was Delimkhanov who announced Albakov's death and called the young man a rebel.

Delimkhanov is an international fugitive, wanted by Interpol and named as a suspect in the apparent contract killing in March of a former Chechen rebel named Sulim Yamadayev in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. The Yamadayev clan has fought bitterly against Kadyrov; Sulim's brother Ruslan was killed last fall in Moscow.

Delimkhanov, whom the Chechen president has described as his "right-hand man," has denied having a hand in Sulim Yamadayev's death.

None of the cases have been thoroughly investigated, and nobody has been convicted of any crimes, but there's no denying that Kadyrov's rivals consistently wind up dead. And the killings are not confined to Chechnya or even to Russia.

There were journalist Anna Politkovskaya and lawyer Stanislav Markelov, both of whom had publicized human rights abuses in Chechnya; the Yamadayev brothers; and Umar Israilov, a former Kadyrov bodyguard who fled to Austria and publicly accused Kadyrov of torturing prisoners, only to be shot down on a Vienna street.

In all of these unsolved slayings, threads stretch back to Chechnya. Kadyrov has staunchly denied involvement. Human rights workers counter that, whether or not Kadyrov was directly implicated, he is guilty of creating an atmosphere of lawlessness and impunity.

The scope of Kadyrov's ambitions is ambiguous. He has hinted that he'd like to preside over a broader swath of the Caucasus, leading observers to conclude that he hopes to gradually extend his authority into Ingushetia and another neighboring republic, Dagestan.

Kadyrov has denied having designs on neighboring lands. Still, there is a fear the fighting in Ingushetia could provide Kadyrov with a justification for expanding his domain.

As violence and fear swell in the Caucasus, observers are beginning to question how much longer the Kremlin can afford to let Kadyrov's power grow -- and whether the destabilization in the southern mountains is leading to another clash with the central government.

Now, however, Moscow may have little choice but to push forward.

Fighting back

Mutsolgov sat in his office, behind him the black and white photos of missing Ingush men and boys. His brother is among the faces -- top row, he points, fourth from the left.

His brother was 28 when he was kidnapped in 2003. He was a physics and mathematics teacher; he spoke four languages. His body was never found.

Around the time of his brother's abduction, Mutsolgov visited the office of the Memorial human rights organization, where he saw a list of more than 1,000 Chechens kidnapped during a two-year period. "I took an oath never to let that happen in Ingushetia," he said.

And so he teamed up with Zurab Tsechoyev, a computer technician whose brother had also been abducted. Together they started MAShR and began to investigate and document kidnappings and attacks in Ingushetia.

Since then, Mutsolgov has been shot at twice. Asked whether he's worried about his safety, Mutsolgov winces and pulls a pistol out of his robe.

As for Tsechoyev, he doesn't bother with a handgun. It wouldn't do any good, he says. When the masked security services came for him last year, they rode in armored personnel carriers, surrounded his house and led him out at gunpoint.

Someone had leaked a list of names of suspected death squad members to the website ingushetiya.ru. The men who came to Tsechoyev's home believed he was to blame; he says they took him to the basement of the FSB headquarters, covered his head with a black plastic bag and tortured him for half a day, trying to force a confession.

In the end, they drove him to an open field and threw him out of the car, threatening to kill him if he didn't leave Ingushetia within a month, he says. He had a broken leg from the beatings, and spent a month in a hospital recuperating from damage to his heart and kidneys.

"They said, if you don't leave Ingushetia, we'll kill first your family and then you," Tsechoyev said. "But I don't want to stop my work. I didn't start my work just to stop like this."

He will stay. He feels he has no choice.

"Kadyrov and his gang, and I have no other word for them, are up to their ears in blood, and the Russian leadership long ago gave them carte blanche to do whatever they want," he said.

"I don't think they'll settle for just Ingushetia. If you give them a finger, they'll bite off your entire arm."

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megan.stack@latimes.com

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

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