Contradictory claims have followed yesterday’s crash of a Russian military helicopter in Chechnya, which killed all fourteen people on board, including a deputy interior minister. An Mi-8 helicopter belonging to the Interior Ministry exploded and crashed near the village of Shelkovskaya, northwest of Djohar (Grozny), the Chechen capital, while on its way to the Russian military base at Khankala. Along with Deputy Interior Minister General Mikhail Rudchenko, who was responsible for security in the Southern federal district, among those killed in the crash were Major General Nikolai Goridov, deputy commander of the Interior Ministry’s internal troops, and three colonels–Yury Orlenko, Yury Stepanenko and Alexander Trofimenko.
Yesterday, the Interfax news agency reported that preliminary evidence indicated the explosion that brought down the helicopter was “an act of terrorism.” Today, however, some government officials sought to play down the idea that the Chechen rebels had brought down the aircraft. “Very careful work has been carried out, the surrounding territory has been checked,” said Nikolai Britvin, deputy presidential representative in the Southern federal district. “Not one object was found, not one cartridge was found that would testify to the fact that the helicopter was fired on from the ground” The NTV.ru website reported that the main theory for why the aircraft went down was that a fire started on board, causing an explosion (NTV.ru,, Interfax, Vremya Novostei, Moscow Times, January 29; AFP, January 28). But less than an hour after Britvin’s comments were reported came word that the North Caucasus department of the Prosecutor General’s Office had launched a criminal investigation into the incident on the basis of Article 205 of Russia’s Criminal Code, covering “terrorism” (RIA Novosti, January 29). On top of that, Colonel Viktor Bezuglyi, commander of the Interior Ministry’s helicopter regiment today ruled out the possibility that the helicopter could have crashed as a result of a technical malfunction. Bezuglyi said that he had personally inspected the aircraft the day before its flight and was “completely sure it was in good working order” (Gazeta.ru, January 28).
The Chechen rebels, for their part, are claiming that they are responsible. The Kavkaz.org website, which supports the more radical wing of the Chechen rebel movement headed by the field commanders Shamil Basaev and Khattab, reported yesterday that Chechen “mujahideen” brought down the Mi-8 using a Russian-made Igla portable surface-to-air missile system (Kavkaz.org, January 27). For its part, the Chechenpress news agency, which is connected to Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov, also claimed that Chechen “soldiers” using an Igla rocket downed the helicopter. Chechenpress said the shoot-down was a “big gift” to the Chechen people and to Maskhadov on the “Day of Honor”–the Chechen separatists’ holiday marking the January 27, 1997 elections in which Maskhadov was chosen Chechnya’s president–and a response to Nikolai Patrushev, director of the Federal Security Service (FSB), who claimed late last week that the bulk of the “illegal armed formations” in Chechnya had been destroyed and that only remaining task was to liquidate them “completely.” The FSB is in charge of the military operation in Chechnya (Chechenpress, January 28; Gazeta.ru, January 24).
The fact that the Prosecutor General’s Office is investigating the crash as a terrorist incident would appear to undermine attempts by other officials to call it an accident. As a newspaper noted today, in the wake of Patrushev’s triumphal statement last week concerning the military operation in Chechnya, “not one sensible official or military man would be brave enough to speak about an act of sabotage without having absolutely iron-clad documentary confirmation of that. If the generals really did die at the hands of the [Chechen] guerrillas–even if the guerrillas did not know who they were firing at–the … words about the separatists’ inability to function are, at a minimum naïve” (Vremya Novostei, January 29). As the paper noted, last September the rebels downed an Mi-8 helicopter that had taken off from the Chechen capital and was ferrying two Russian generals and eight colonels to the Khankala military base. According to reports at the time, the rebels used a missile to down the helicopter, though subsequent reports indicated that they used a rocket-propelled grenade. In any case all ten passengers were killed in that incident (see the Monitor, September 18, 2001).
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