Finding Those Behind Chechen Killings ‘Paramount,' Russian President Says

By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, August 15, 2009

MOSCOW, Aug. 14 -- Russian President Dmitry Medvedev declared Friday that the capture of those responsible for the recent killings of three Chechen human rights workers should be the "paramount task" of the nation's security services.

Medvedev also appeared to signal dissatisfaction with Chechnya's Kremlin-appointed strongman, Ramzan Kadyrov, a former rebel warlord who has been accused of terrorizing the population.

"I think this is a challenge for the Chechen leadership," Medvedev said at a news conference in the Black Sea resort of Sochi after talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. "The Chechen president must do everything he can to find and apprehend these murderers."

His demand came amid a surge of violence in Chechnya and two neighboring provinces, Dagestan and Ingushetia, that left 23 people dead. The bloodshed underscored the Kremlin's struggle to maintain control of the region against an Islamist insurgency that appears to be gaining momentum.

In the deadliest incident, militants burst into a bathhouse Thursday night in the city of Buynaksk in Dagestan and gunned down seven women, authorities said. The attack occurred after the rebels sprayed a nearby police post with gunfire, killing four police officers.

Six other police officers and five suspected rebels were reported killed in gun battles in Chechnya and Dagestan on Thursday and Friday. In Ingushetia, authorities said a woman who made a living telling fortunes was shot to death Thursday by militants who consider the practice a grave sin.

An American expert on the region warned in an article this week that Russia's repressive policies in the North Caucasus had created "fertile ground for terrorist recruiters" and represented a threat to U.S. security interests.

"Getting targeted assistance to the region, including job creation, should be of the highest importance to the White House and the State Department, as well as European governments," wrote Sarah Mendelson, human rights and security initiative director at Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Referring to the unsolved killings of several human rights activists and journalists, Mendelson urged President Obama and European leaders to make clear to Medvedev that "impunity will not be tolerated" while pressing him to accept international help to address lawlessness in the region.

Chechnya's most prominent human rights activist, Natalya Estemirova, was abducted and executed last month, and a couple who ran a center for children traumatized by Russia's two wars against Chechen separatists was found shot to death in the trunk of their car Tuesday.

A day later, the Ingush construction minister was gunned down in his office. The Ingush leader, Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, returned to work this week after recovering from an assassination attempt in June that killed four of his bodyguards.

Medvedev linked the attacks on the human rights workers to those on government officials, and said they were "aimed at destabilizing the situation in the Caucasus" and carried out by militants with foreign support.

"I have given all necessary orders," he said, according to the Interfax news agency. "Finding, prosecuting and punishing these murderers is the paramount task for all law enforcement authorities, for the office of the prosecutor general, for the Investigation Committee, and for other special services."

Merkel told reporters she condemned the recent killings "in the strongest terms" during a summit meeting that focused on trade and investment. "This is unfortunately a serious subject which we have to deal with time and again at many meetings," she said.

Human rights activists argue that the most likely suspects in the slayings of their colleagues are not the rebels but members of the Russian security services. Some accuse Kadyrov of engaging in "state terrorism" against his critics with the tacit support of his patron, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, and a group of Russian lawyers has called for an international tribunal to prosecute war crimes committed in Chechnya.

Medvedev last month dismissed allegations that Kadyrov was behind Estemirova's death, but his remarks Friday suggest that he may be losing patience with the Chechen leader, a former separatist fighter whom Putin entrusted with unusual autonomy over the region in 2007 in return for his loyalty.

Kadyrov has condemned the killings and vowed to solve them, but he has also repeatedly derided Estemirova, saying she "never had any honor or sense of shame" and "was misleading society and writing lies."

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