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Insurgents Mount Deadly Attack on Chechen Parliament

October 19, 2010 at 6:16 PM EDT
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Margaret Warner reports on the violence unleashed by Islamic militants in Russia's southern republic of Chechnya Tuesday. Six were dead and 17 injured in Grozny, the provincial capital, after gunmen and a suicide bomber stormed Parliament.

GWEN IFILL: Next: Trouble stirs again in a restless Russian republic. Margaret Warner has our report on the latest turbulence in Chechnya.

MARGARET WARNER: Russian special forces move room to room in the parliament building in Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, today, after three heavily armed Islamist rebels stormed the complex and began killing whomever they found.

One detonated his suicide vest at the gate, killing a policeman. Two others ran into the building and, shouting in Arabic “Allahu akbar,” “God is great,” opened fire. Security forces counterattacked quickly, holding the death toll to three to six. No parliamentarians died.

The brazen attack was seen as a direct challenge to the Chechen president, Ramzan Kadyrov, a strongman installed by Moscow to rule the volatile southern Russian republic and to suppress its decades-long insurgency.

MIRIAM LANSKOY, Russia and Eurasia program director, National Endowment for Democracy: Moscow is seeing a war that they have not been able to put an end to in a military sense and a political sense.

MARGARET WARNER: That’s the clear message of today’s attacks, says Miriam Lanskoy, an expert on Central Asia and the Caucasus at the National Endowment for Democracy, and co-author of an upcoming book on Chechnya.

MIRIAM LANSKOY: From the perspective of Moscow and from Moscow’s appointed president, Ramzan Kadyrov, the war is over. In the broadest sense, what they have done is show everyone that, indeed, the Chechen resistance is still active and is still able to mount attacks.

MARGARET WARNER: Today, Russia’s interior minister, who was visiting Grozny, insisted the government was firmly in control and that the Chechen rebellion had been nearly decapitated.

RASHID NURGALIYEV, Russian Interior Minister (through translator): I would like to say that an operational situation of this kind is extremely rare. Why? Because it is stable and secure here. And on guard here are the police officers of the Chechen republic.

MARGARET WARNER: But stability and security are hardly the norm Chechnya now, nor in the broader North Caucasus region of predominantly Muslim states, which includes neighboring Dagestan and Ingushetia.

Despite the interior minister’s confident words, violence in the North Caucasus has been on the upswing over the past two years, waged by Islamist rebels bent on challenging Russian primacy there. It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

Russia fought two brutal wars in the ’90s against Chechen drives for independence. But, even after Moscow declared victory in mid-2000, terrorism continued. Chechens were behind a 2002 hostage siege of a Moscow theater that killed more than 100.

In 2004, Chechens took 1,100 schoolchildren and adults hostage in Beslan in North Ossetia. More than 330 died in the frontal assault to free them. And, this past March, terror revisited Moscow. Two female suicide bombers blew up a train station there, killing some 40 people.

Responsibility for the Moscow subway bombing was claimed by this man, Doku Umarov, a Chechen resistance leader who in this recent video posted online called for the caliphate of the Northern Caucasus. But Lanskoy believes today’s attack was the work of a rival faction.

MIRIAM LANSKOY: There has been a competition brewing among the Chechen commanders for several months. It’s clear that Doku Umarov, who has been their leader, is being challenged by several others. This attack is their way of saying that they are the real force among the resistance in Chechnya, as opposed the him.

MARGARET WARNER: Perhaps more ominously, the nature of the Chechen resistance has morphed over the decade. The Chechen rebels of the ’90s had conventional resistance aims.

MIRIAM LANSKOY: Their goal was a Chechen independent state. That state had borders. It would participate in the U.N., similar to the independent states that emerged from the Soviet Union.

MARGARET WARNER: The goal of the Chechen insurgents today is quite something else.

So, what is their aim?

MIRIAM LANSKOY: It’s an aspiration. It’s a dream.

MARGARET WARNER: The dream of an Islamic state?

MIRIAM LANSKOY: Yes, it’s — it — but one that is quite beyond Chechnya, that is regional, to build a Caucasus emirate which will have no borders.

MARGARET WARNER: It may seem a far-fetched dream on the relatively peaceful streets of Grozny today, but it’s an aspiration that promises instability for some time to come.