Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Grozny Blast Divides Chechens

A month after a powerful explosion ripped through Grozny, Chechens are no closer to identifying who was behind it.
By Timur Aliev

The aftershocks of a devastating suicide bomb in the centre of Grozny almost a month ago has divided Chechnya politically like never before.

The December 27 bombing - which destroyed the government's headquarters and left 72 people dead - came just as the Kremlin and the pro-Moscow administration of Akhmad Kadyrov were claiming that Chechnya was now sufficiently stable to hold

a new constitutional referendum in March.

The referendum is still scheduled to go ahead, but human rights groups say that the Russian army has intensified its round-ups of suspected militants since the beginning of the year, arresting young men in areas such as Argun, Berdykele, Samashki, Gekhi, and Grozny itself.

Kadyrov's administration is now working out of more than 30 temporary trailers while its devastated offices are rebuilt - a process that is expected to be finished by April.

The offices are heavily guarded. Only vehicles which are on a special list are admitted to the compound, and visitors need a permit with three different official signatures.

Meanwhile the suffering of the victims and the mutual recriminations about who was responsible for the tragedy go on.

Chechnya has never since intra-Chechen violence on this scale before. Said-Khasan Dadayev, a former fighter amnestied in the spring of 2000, is one of those who condemned the perpetrators of the blast.

"When a suicide bomber blew up the Russian military headquarters in Argun, in the summer of 2000, I was pleased," Dadayev said. "But it's different when my own people die - even if they work for Moscow.

"The thing is that the Chechen leadership almost all survived, while those who died were ordinary clerks and government visitors who haven't done anything wrong," he adds.

The December 27 bombing took the local administration completely by surprise. On that day two vehicles, a heavy truck and a minivan, ploughed through the perimeter

fence around the building, broke into the courtyard and exploded.

Officials put the total number of casualties at 282, including 72 dead. Around half of the victims were women. Reporter Kometa Tepsaeva, who was injured in the blast, said she saw many more victims in hospital. According to her, "there were lots of people in the building before the New Year - many came there to pick up their holiday presents."

One of those who died was Rizvan Ilyasov, a government driver who had only just returned to work after being freed by Russian soliders. They had detained him earlier that day, but let him go after local residents protested for his release - a very rare occurrence.

The next day Russian president Vladimir Putin declared that "Chechen militants resort to increasingly violent methods in order to sabotage the restoration of Russian rule in Chechnya," he said. "But they can't slow down the search for conflict settlement."

There are already many different theories of what happened and why.

According to an army spokesman in Chechnya Ilya Shabalkin, Arab mercenary Abu Walid and field commander Shamil Basayev were both involved in the attack. Shabalkin said that Abu Walid had ordered a number of massive terrorist attacks in Grozny and Gudermes only three days prior to the blast.

For his part Akhmad Kadyrov, head of Chechnya's pro-Russian administration claimed that "whoever is identified as the actual bombers". the person behind them is the ousted pro-independence president Aslan Maskhadov.

Kadyrov, a former ally of Maskhadov who now supports the Kremlin, said the planned March referendum would go ahead. "The thugs wanted to scare civilians, employees of the administration, the government of the republic - but the horrible explosion only brought people closer together in the name of peace," he said.

Maskhadov himself condemned the killings but said he was unable to rein in Chechnya's new breed of suicide bombers and blamed the Russian military for making it happen.

"Everyone is concerned about what happened in Grozny, that there are

suicide bombers and terrorist acts," Maskhadov said in a taped interview recorded the day after the attack and made available to Agence France Press.

"The bombers were unable to come to terms with the humiliation that their people were dealt by the Russian troops. They saw no other choice but to sacrifice their lives," Maskhadov said.

Ordinary people were horrified by the attack. But many chose to blame a Russian conspiracy rather than Chechen rebels.

Chechnya's interior minister Ruslan Tsakayev has implied that Russian security services may have been involved. When he described the people who were apparently seen in the vehicles, he said that "three terrorists were of Slavic appearance and spoke Russian without an accent. At least two of them were blond."

According to another version, told by Russian soldiers on duty at a checkpoint to their Chechen colleagues, the vehicles had number-plates from a Russian military base. They claim that the bombers had shown official documents, and had been let through.

There are also rumours circulating in Chechnya that the bombing of the government offices was an attempt to destroy certain Russian finance ministry documents.

"They say that a visit from Russia's accountancy chief Sergei Stepashin was scheduled for the following day. His team was supposed to check on the use of funds allocated for the restoration of Chechnya," claimed local official Ruslan Bakanayev. "Supposedly, they had information about some 700 million roubles of embezzled money. The bombing was intended to eliminate any traces of those accounts."

It is true that the wing where the finance ministry was housed suffered the greatest damage - and that Chechen finance minister Sergei Abramov was sacked a couple of weeks after the attack.

However, many Chechens stick by the official explanation - and maintain that support for extremist fighters is falling among the population. At the same time there is still an overwhelming desire for Russian forces to leave the republic.

"Only a complete demilitarisation can stabilise the situation in Chechnya," says the head of the Institute of Political Culture, Lamast Lyoma Shakhmurzayev. "You can't talk of peace at gunpoint."

Timur Aliev is a freelance journalist and frequent IWPR contributor based in Ingushetia