Dagestani Blast Inquiry 'Floundering'

Officials have fingered a Dagestani warlord for the slaughter at last week's military parade, but important questions remain unanswered.

Dagestani Blast Inquiry 'Floundering'

Officials have fingered a Dagestani warlord for the slaughter at last week's military parade, but important questions remain unanswered.

Russian officials have named their prime suspect for a horrific bomb blast at a Victory day parade in the Dagestani town of Kaspiisk a week ago, but have so far failed to establish a motive.

Three suspects, initially detained for the May 9 explosion, which killed 42 people and wounded 90, were cleared of involvement. Then officials blamed Rappani Khalilov, a little-known Dagestani militant, said to be hiding in Chechnya, for the massacre. No one has explained why.

The bomb, an anti-personnel mine, filled with pieces of steel wire and with a force equivalent to three kilograms of dynamite, appears to have been planted to cause the greatest possible destruction. It was left in shrubs next to a road, where a crowd was gathering, and detonated as a military brass band marched past.

Excerpts from an amateur video taken by a Kaspiisk resident and broadcast on television show the military band playing a festive tune before being engulfed in billowing black smoke. Screams break out. As the smoke clears, soldiers in camouflage and civilians are seen sprawled around a deep crater in the street, with blood pouring from their wounds.

Twenty-two people, including six children, were declared dead at the site, and about 110 more were hospitalised. As of Sunday, 20 more had died of their injuries. The dead included 21 soldiers stationed in Kaspiisk, mostly musicians marching in the parade, and 13 children who were running in front of the band.

When an IWPR correspondent reached the blast site an hour after the explosion, it was dotted with large pools of blood, strips of victims' clothing, shoes and sheet music.

Alimagomed Isayev, 32, was in the crowd a few dozen metres away from the epicenter of the explosion. "At first, people scattered in all directions in panic," he said. "But they quickly came back to help the moaning victims. They didn't know what to do and stood motionless in despair, women were moving among the maimed bodies and sobbing hysterically. Then we began to load all those who were covered with blood into cars and drive them to hospitals."

Two hours after the explosion, with the area sealed off and explosives experts investigating the fragments of the bomb, federal servicemen began to compile the first list of the deceased. A young lieutenant loudly read out the names, "Kravchenko Alexander, Bass Sergei. . ."

A burly major in a black beret stood nearby, his hands covering his face, tears running down the cheeks. "Bitches, bitches," he cursed.

Kaspiisk, a town of 70,000 people, is the headquarters of the Russian federal border guards and marines stationed in Dagestan.

The latest bomb blast occurred a few minutes before President Putin was due to address World War Two veterans at a Victory Day rally in Moscow. Signaling how seriously he took the news, Putin said he would take personal charge of the inquiry into the attack. He ordered Nikolai Patrushev, head of the counter-intelligence service, the FSB, to head the team of investigators and to report directly to him.

Unusually, the authorities did not directly accuse Chechen rebels of being behind the bombing. Speaking on national television, Viktor Kazantsev, Putin's plenipotentiary in the Southern Federal District, told Russians not to jump to such a conclusion.

The rebels themselves denied any involvement. "The Chechens and those who sympathise with the Chechens in their struggle have nothing in common with such actions because it would mean playing into the hands of our enemies," Akhmed Zakayev, a spokesman for separatist leader Aslan Maskhadov, said in a statement posted on the separatists' website Chechenpress.com on May 10.

However Patrushev, who flew to Dagestan to lead the investigation, said on the same day that the explosion "may be a result of events taking place on the territory of Chechnya".

Three ethnic Dagestani suspects were arrested in St. Petersburg on May 11 and flown to the republic's capital, Makhachkala. A day later, they were cleared of involvement in the May 9 attack but remained in custody on suspicion of having carried out other bombings in Dagestan.

Later Dagestan's interior minister Adilgirei Magomedtagirov blamed Rappani Khalilov, a Chechnya-based warlord of Dagestani origin, for the bombing. The minister said that Khalilov was hiding in the Nozhai-Yurt region of eastern Chechnya. "As interior minister I swear that he will be either seized or eliminated," Magomedtagirov told reporters in Makhachkala. He said his ministry, rather than federal forces, would carry out the operation.

According to the Dagestani interior ministry, Khalilov has employed about 40 militants in as many as 15 terrorist attacks in the republic over the past eight months. His name first surfaced after a bomb exploded near a military truck in Makhachkala in January, killing seven servicemen and injuring 20. Russian deputy prosecutor general Vladimir Kolesnikov claimed that most of Khalilov's group had undergone training in Chechnya, Georgia's Pankisi Gorge, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

At the same time, other versions for the bomb explosion are being widely discussed in Dagestan. In November 1996 Kaspiisk was the scene for another horrendous attack against Russian servicemen. An apartment block, which was home to border guards and their families, was destroyed by a bomb, killing 68 people. Nobody was ever convicted of that crime that many linked to the battle for control of Dagestan's lucrative caviar trade. Some believe the same smuggling business - rather than radical Islam - may be involved this time.

In another version of events, which has been widely discussed in the national press, its claimed the bombers may have been trying to undermine Dagestan's leader Magomedali Magomedov ahead of new elections for the post of head of the republic in June. Magomedov is expected to be the only candidate for the job he has held since 1994.

However, respected Dagestani sociologist Enver Kisriev, said this theory did not hold water. "Such an explanation for the attack might make sense, if there was any suggestion that it would hurt Moscow's relations with Magomedov," said Kisriev. "But today Magomedov's position inside the republic and Moscow's support for him are remarkably strong."

Sergei Rasulov and Nabi Abdullayev are correspondents with Novoe Delo in Makhachkala and the Moscow Times respectively.

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