Russia’s embassy in Beirut was the apparent target of an attack launched yesterday to protest Moscow’s ongoing war against Islamic rebels in Chechnya. News reports differed as to just how many assailants were involved in the attack, which left one policeman dead and several policemen and bystanders wounded. According to one report, the assailants fired four rocket-propelled grenades at the embassy and sprayed it with gunfire from a nearby building, killing a policeman. Lebanese security forces then stormed that building and, in what was reported to be a furious exchange of gunfire, killed one of the attackers. At least two other assailants reportedly escaped in the confusion and under the cover of heavy rain. Several passersby were injured during the exchange. The attack was said to have been the most serious on a foreign diplomatic mission in Lebanon since the end of the 1975-1990 civil war there.
The link to Chechnya was reportedly established by a note found on the dead gunman, who was identified by Lebanese state television as a thirty-year-old Palestinian refugee named Ahmed Abou Kharoub. The same report said that a note found in his pocket read: “I martyred myself for Grozny [Djohar].” A woman taken hostage during the gun battle appeared to confirm that report. She was quoted as saying that Abou Kharoub had said that he “wanted to die a martyr and that it pained him not to have killed a Russian before he was shot.” In reports later denied by Lebanese security officials, some Beirut newspapers said last week that Islamists who support the Chechen rebels are being trained in Lebanon. Muslim militants in Lebanon who oppose Russia’s military crackdown in Chechnya have staged protests against that Russian action and have reportedly been raising money for the rebels. No Russian casualties occurred during yesterday’s attack, though a political attache at the embassy said that the building’s consular section was damaged (AP, Reuters, Xinhua, January 3).
In London, meanwhile, a Russian news agency reported comments yesterday suggesting that Islamic fundamentalist groups in Britain have connections to those who carried out yesterday’s attack in Beirut. According to the same report, one of those groups was responsible for the beating given last November to several journalists from Russia’s ORT and NTV television companies (Itar-Tass, January 3). The Russian Foreign Ministry officially protested that event, and accused Britain of harboring extremist groups which it said were providing aid to the Chechen rebels (see the Monitor, November 16, 1999).
There have been sporadic protests throughout the Muslim world against Russia’s war in Chechnya and calls–though generally muted ones–by Muslim political leaders for its quick termination. The strongest official action taken by these countries to date was a visit by an Iranian-led delegation of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) to Russia early last month. The OIC called on Moscow to halt the fighting in Chechnya and to turn instead to diplomacy to resolve the conflict. The delegation later visited the Russian North Caucasus, but has done little since that time to dissuade Moscow from continuing its war against Chechen rebels (see the Monitor, December 8, 1999).
When the Russian government launched its assault against Chechnya it described the action as a war against “international terrorism.” That description was intended largely for domestic consumption, however, and as a pretext to justify the war to governments around the world. But yesterday’s attack in Beirut suggests that Russian propaganda over the war could become something of a self-fulfilling prophesy. As the bloody battle endures and escalates in Chechnya, militant groups throughout the Islamic world could become increasingly interested in the fate of the Chechen rebels–or in making Moscow pay for the continuing bloodshed in the North Caucasus.
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