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Berezovsky Alleges Chechen Plot

Former Kremlin insider accuses President Putin of collusion in the 1999 bomb blasts that triggered the second Chechen war.
By Thomas de Waal

The murky beginnings of the second war in Chechnya were put under the spotlight in dramatic fashion this week as a former key ally of President Vladimir Putin alleged that the Russian leader knew about a plot to blow up apartment buildings in Moscow in September 1999.


Boris Berezovsky, the business magnate now in exile after falling out with the Kremlin, declared Tuesday that Putin "definitely knew" in advance about the bombings, which killed more than 200 people in the cities of Moscow and Volgodonsk. Berezovsky said that he believed the bombings were carried out not by Chechen militants, as was claimed at the time, but by the domestic intelligence service, the FSB in a bid to bring Putin to power.


Days after the apartment block explosions, Putin, blaming "Chechen terrorists", launched new attacks on Chechnya. Six months later he was elected president in succession to Boris Yeltsin.


There was very little in the allegations made by Berezovsky, which had not been reported in small-circulation Russian newspapers and a book written by an ex-KGB officer over the last two years.


The drama was in the seniority of the man making the allegations - a former Kremlin insider - and the very public stage he gave it, a lavish press conference at the Royal United Services Institute in London, attended by dozens of journalists.


Journalists were shown a ten-minute extract from a new documentary film, made by a French film company. Berezovsky had brought along professional explosives experts, two Russian members of parliament from a new movement named Liberal Russia, bankrolled and co-chaired by himself, and even the daughter of one of the victims of the Moscow bombings.


Also present was the former acting director of a Moscow scientific institute affiliated with the Russian education ministry, Nikita Chekulin. Chekulin said he had been recruited by the FSB in 2000 as part of an undercover operation, during which he learned of a plan by the intelligence service to take six tons of high explosives from military bases under false labels. His subsequent enquiries into what had happened were blocked by the FSB.


Chekulin's testimony was the nearest thing to a "smoking gun" but even he admitted that he had no direct documentary evidence directly related to the three apartment block bombings.


All attention, however, was focussed on another mysterious incident in the city of Ryazan, south of Moscow, which the authorities first described as a bombing attempt, but later insisted was an FSB "exercise".


On the evening of September 22 1999, with Russia still reeling from the shocking apartment block blasts, a bus-driver in Ryazan reported to police that he had seen two men and a woman outside an apartment building unloading three heavy sacks from a car, whose number-plates had been partially covered up.


Police later found three sacks full of yellowish granules and a detonator in the basement of the building. According to journalists, the first explosives expert on the scene, Yury Tkachenko, identified the substance in the sacks as hexogen, a dangerous explosive.


The apartment block was evacuated and for 24 hours the Russian authorities announced that another bomb plot had been thwarted. However, the following evening the FSB declared that in fact the people with the sacks - which it said were sugar - had been its own operatives staging a "training exercise".


Berezovsky declared that this was a cover-up and that the FSB was trying to stage an attack in Ryazan, which was a "carbon copy" of the ones in Moscow. Sergei Yushenkov, one of the Russian deputies present, said he had tried and failed twice to get parliament to demand an official investigation.


Berezovsky stressed, however, that he was not accusing Putin of ordering the explosions. "What I am saying is that he definitively knew that such things were taking place," he said.


In Moscow, the authorities dismissed Berezovsky's allegations as those of an embittered man who had fallen out with Putin and fled abroad. Berezovsky is accused of having embezzled funds from Aeroflot, of which he used to be part owner


An investigator from the Russian prosecutor's office, Pavel Barkovsky, accused Berezovsky of having armed two Chechnya-based warriors, Shamil Basayev and Khattab, who made an incursion into Dagestan in the summer of 1999, an episode which, along with the apartment block bombings, led to the start of the second Chechen war.


Although the main Russian media predictably failed to give much attention to Berezovsky's allegations, the accusations - together with the official counter-charges - will contribute to growing public disquiet about the war in Chechnya. Opinion polls show that public support for the conflict, very high in 1999-2000, has slowly eroded as dozens of Russian soldiers continue to be killed there each month.


Big question marks will hang over the start of the second Chechen war, so long as there is no investigation into what happened in Ryazan and no one is charged for the bombings in Moscow and Volgodonsk. Two men accused of complicity in the explosions and tried in the southern Russian city of Stavropol last year were both acquitted. The only men convicted have been several Dagestani militants, who were found guilty of carrying out another bombing in the North Caucasian town of Buinaksk in the same period.


For the Chechens, Berezovsky' renewed feuding with Putin brought a weary response. "There was nothing new here that hadn't been said last year or the year before last," said Mairbek Vachagayev, press secretary to Chechnya's rebel president Aslan Maskhadov and now resident in Paris.


Vachagayev - who stressed that he was speaking in a personal capacity and not on behalf of Maskhadov - called the latest allegations "a game between Putin, Berezovsky and the FSB".


Thomas de Waal is IWPR's Caucasus Editor.