The deadline for the ultimatum laid down by a commander of rebel forces in Chechnya, Abu al-Walid, involving the fate of the crew of a Russian helicopter gunship, expired yesterday (May 20). Al-Walid, an Arab warlord who succeeded the recently deceased Khattab as commander of a rebel unit fighting in the breakaway republic, had announced on April 9 that he was holding the three-man crew of an Mi-24 that had gone missing over Chechnya two months earlier. On May 16, he said he would execute the prisoners in three days if the Russian military failed to release twenty “citizens of Ichkeria” who were being held in Russian jails. He gave not only the number of the downed chopper, but detailed information about its captured crew (NTVru.com, April 9; Lenta.ru, May 16).
Russian military and other officials have indicated they are not certain whether the helicopter’s crew is still alive. According to Izvestia, military counterintelligence was tasked with determining the fate of the crew but was unable to find out whether they were alive or how the rebels managed to get hold of the crew’s identification documents. The wife of Anatoly Kirpanev, one of the missing Mi-24 pilots, told the newspaper that she had only learned about Abu al-Walid’s ultimatum from news reports and questioned whether the Russian military had really been searching for the crew (Izvestia, May 20).
Meanwhile, Kavkaz.org, the website connected to the hardline Islamist wing of the Chechen rebel movement, claimed today that it had unsuccessfully tried to contact the Arab warlord to determine the fate of the Mi-24 crew, post-deadline. The website, which earlier had carried Al-Walid’s ultimatum and other statements by the Arab warlord, stated that while it was unable to confirm the fate of the three Russian POWs one way or the other, it had received “unconfirmed information” from “one of the Chechen mujahideen” that they had “possibly” been executed (Kavkaz.org, May 21).
Whatever the case, it is fairly clear that if the Mi-24 crew members are indeed prisoners of the Chechen rebels, their fate has already been sealed. It would not be the first time that the Russian military washed its hands of soldiers taken captive in Chechnya. The Chechen rebels on more than one occasion have threatened to shoot POWs if an ultimatum were not met. As a rule, the Russian military leadership ignores such ultimatums while failing to take alternative steps to free captured servicemen, who are subsequently executed.
MOSCOW PREVAILS ON KYRGYZSTAN TO SAY NYET TO BALTIC SOLDIERS.