Murders Linked to Chechen Conflict

Russian police believe Chechen Wahhabis may be responsible for eleven gruesome murders in two Caucasian republics

Murders Linked to Chechen Conflict

Russian police believe Chechen Wahhabis may be responsible for eleven gruesome murders in two Caucasian republics

A spate of grisly murders in the Caucasus has fuelled fears that Islamic extremists are plotting to reignite smouldering ethnic conflicts across the region.

The murder of five Georgians in the breakaway republic of South Ossetia was followed by the apparently motiveless killing of six picnickers in neighbouring North Ossetia.

A special team from Moscow has been sent to the Caucasus to investigate the crimes, which reportedly bear all the hallmarks of ritual executions.

The attack on the carload of Georgians took place on the eighth anniversary of a bloody battle between South Ossetian separatists and Georgian army troops. The mountain statelet won de facto independence in 1992 after a two-year struggle against the government in Tbilisi.

The five victims died when armed men fired automatic weapons at their vehicle in the Goriisky region, a part of South Ossetia largely inhabited by Georgians.

However, local authorities are unwilling to link the attack to local rivalries, saying that this may have been an attempt by agents provocateurs to fan the embers of the old feud and trigger fresh fighting.

Later in the same day, a North Ossetian shepherd spotted an overturned white Lada in a gully near the village of Oktyabrskoe. He called local police officers who discovered the corpse of a young man inside the car. The man had been handcuffed, his throat slit and his body riddled with stab wounds.

A search of the area revealed another five corpses - two men and three women who had all suffered similar mutilation. Aged between 26 and 31, four were residents of the nearby village, two were visitors from Abkhazia. They had apparently driven to the woods for a picnic.

Kazbek Dzantiev, Minister of Internal Affairs for North Ossetia said, "The brutal nature of this crime indicates that the murders were committed by the so-called Wahhabis whose calling card is well-known across the North Caucasus."

Dzantiev believes the motive was "an attempt to widen the zone of military and terrorist activities in the south of Russia."

He linked the murders to the May 11 attack on a unit of interior ministry troops in Ingushetia. The ambush, near the village of Khalashki, is thought to have been staged by Islamic fighters from Chechnya under the command of the notorious field commander Arbi Baraev. The attack claimed the lives of 19 Russian servicemen who had just been completed their tour of duty and were due to be demobbed.

Russian president Vladimir Putin has since appointed Vladimir Kozlov, deputy head of the interior ministry to head the investigation. Kozlov agreed that the murders in North Ossetia were "ritual killings, aimed at spreading terror across the North Caucasus" and were committed by five or six armed men. Robbery has been ruled out as a possible motive: the victims' valuables had not been removed.

The crimes were committed in the Prigorodny province of North Ossetia which has a history of ethnic unrest. Neighbouring Ingushetia has territorial claims on the region and, in 1992, the simmering dispute erupted into armed conflict between the two republics.

Lev Dzugaev, press secretary for the president of North Ossetia, Alexander Dzasokhov, said the murders came just days after a meeting between Ingushetian president Ruslan Aushev and Dzasokhov aimed at resolving the border dispute.

Meanwhile, the Chechen vice-president Vakha Arsanov has accused the Russian security services of committing the murders in a bid to destabilise the entire region.

Alexander Voronin is a correspondent for Moskovsky Komsomolets

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