Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 57

Police in Djohar [Grozny], the Chechen capital, announced yesterday that they had arrested three persons suspected of involvement in murders the city’s Leninsk district. Earlier this week, Chechen law enforcement authorities announced that ten people, at least eight of them ethnic Russians, had been murdered in the district. The Chechen military prosecutor’s office announced yesterday that another two the district’s residents had been found shot to death, while the official Itar-Tass news agency reported that a total of fourteen people, all of them ethnic Russians, had been murdered in the Leninsk district. According to earlier reports, two of the victims were Chechen. Police sources said the three apprehended suspects were a former policeman and two Chechen rebel fighters, and that one of them was found with a knife that had been used yesterday to cut the throat of a 65-year-old woman in the Chechen capital. The three have not yet been officially connected with all of the reported Grozny murders. According to other reports, two other suspects in the murders were shot dead when they tried to resist arrest. “The goal of all the murders was to destabilize the situation in the Chechen capital and intimidate the city’s inhabitants,” Itar-Tass commented, echoing comments made earlier by Russian military officials (Russian agencies, NTV, March 21; see also the Monitor, March 21).

Meanwhile, the Russian authorities reacted angrily to reports that U.S. State Department officials planned this week to meet with Ilyas Akhmadov, foreign minister in the government of Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov. Marc Grossman, President George W. Bush’s nominee for undersecretary of state for political affairs, confirmed that a meeting with representatives from Maskhadov’s government would be held at the assistant secretary level. During the Clinton period, Secretary of State Madeline Albright and Strobe Talbot, the administration’s pointman on Russia, refused to meet with Akhmadov. Sergei Yastrzhembsky, President Vladimir Putin’s former spokesman on Chechnya who was elevated this week to head a newly formed Kremlin information department, called the planned meetings between the U.S. State Department and Maskhadov’s representatives “absolutely unacceptable.” Yastrzhembsky said that “such contacts can be interpreted the circles of the Chechen terrorists and separatists only as a signal encouraging their actions” and warned that “such contacts, if they take place, cannot but have a negative influence on Russian-U.S. ties” (Russian agencies, Reuters, March 21; Vremya Novostei, March 22).

While Yaztrzhembsky’s brief now extends beyond simply the issue of Chechnya, he appears likely to continue devoting time and energy to spinning the conflict in the breakaway republic. In his debut press conference as the Kremlin’s overall information manager on March 20, Yastrzhembsky claimed he had “operational information” showing that last week’s hijacking of a Russian airliner from Istanbul, Turkey to Medina, Saudi Arabia was carried out on the personal orders of Chechen rebel field commander Khattab. The Kremlin spokesman said that as a result of the hijacking “many people, including in the Middle East, have become aware of the threat from Chechen separatism and terrorism” (NTV, March 20).