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Russia's Chechnya has seen decades of war, terror

Saturday - 4/20/2013, 4:10pm  ET

This combination of undated photos shows Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, left, and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19. The FBI says the two brothers and suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing killed an MIT police officer, injured a transit officer in a firefight and threw explosive devices at police during a getaway attempt in a long night of violence that left Tamerlan dead and Dzhokhar still at large on Friday, April 19, 2013. The ethnic Chechen brothers lived in Dagestan, which borders the Chechnya region in southern Russia. They lived near Boston and had been in the U.S. for about a decade, one of their uncles reported said. (AP Photo/The Lowell Sun & Robin Young)
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ARSEN MOLLAYEV
Associated Press

MAKHACHKALA, Russia (AP) -- The two brothers suspected in the Boston Marathon bombings have their ethnic roots in Chechnya, a part of the Caucasus Mountains that has spawned decades of violence -- from separatist wars to suicide attacks, blood feuds and hostage sieges.

Authorities have not linked Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to any insurgent groups, and the Kremlin-backed strongman who now leads Chechnya says the brothers got their inspiration in the U.S., not the troubled region in southern Russia.

"They weren't living here. They were living, studying and growing up in America," Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov said in an interview on Russian television. "They have been educated there, not here."

The families of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the 26-year-old killed in a gun battle with police in Massachusetts overnight, and his 19-year-old brother, Dzhokhar, left Chechnya long ago and moved to Central Asia, according to the Chechen government.

Before arriving in the United States a decade ago, the brothers lived briefly in Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan, a neighboring, violence-wracked Russian province where their father resides.

The conflict in Chechnya began in 1994 as a separatist war, but became an Islamic insurgency dedicated to forming an Islamic state in the Caucasus. Dagestan has since become the epicenter of the insurgency.

Russian troops withdrew from Chechnya in 1996 after the first Chechen war, leaving it de-facto independent and largely lawless, but then rolled back three years later following apartment building explosions in Moscow and other cities blamed on the rebels.

Kadyrov has Moscow's carte blanche to stabilize Chechnya with his feared security services, which are accused of killings, torture and other rampant human rights abuses.

The Tsarnaev brothers lived in the region only briefly as children, but appeared to have maintained a strong Chechen identity. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's first name is the same as Chechnya's first separatist president, who was killed in a Russian airstrike.

The suspects' uncle, Ruslan Tsarni of Montgomery Village, Md., urged Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to turn himself in, saying: "He put a shame on our family, the Tsarnaev family. He put a shame on the entire Chechen ethnicity."

In the interview on Russian TV, Kadyrov offered his condolences to the Boston Marathon victims, but placed the blame squarely on the United States.

He added on Instagram that "the roots of this evil are to be found in America," but offered no explanation. He also criticized U.S. authorities for failing to capture the older brother alive.

Russia has relied on Kadyrov, a ruthless former rebel, to bring a degree of stability to Chechnya in recent years. But the Islamic insurgency has spread to neighboring provinces, with Dagestan -- sandwiched between Chechnya and the Caspian Sea -- now seeing the worst of the violence. Militants launch daily attacks against police and other authorities.

Militants from Chechnya and neighboring provinces have carried out a series of terrorist attacks in Russia, including a 2002 raid on a Moscow theater, in which 129 hostages died, most of them from the effects of narcotics gas that Russian special forces pumped into the building to incapacitate the attackers.

In 2004, militants from Chechnya took more than 1,000 people hostage at a school in Beslan, and the siege ended when gunfire erupted after explosions tore through the gym. More than half of the 330 people who died were children. There also have been numerous bombings in Moscow and other cities.

The Obama administration placed Chechen warlord Doku Umarov on a list of terrorist leaders after he claimed responsibility for 2010 suicide bombings on Moscow's subway that killed 40 people and a 2009 train bombing that claimed 26 lives.

Russia faced strong international criticism for its indiscriminate use of force against civilians and other rights abuses in Chechnya. The two separatist wars killed an estimated 100,000 people, and Russian bombing reduced most of Chechnya's capital, Grozny, and many other towns and villages to rubble, sending tens of thousands fleeing.

The federal forces suffered heavy casualties in the hands of lightly armed rebels, who relied on their centuries-old warrior culture and knowledge of rugged terrain to offset the Russian edge in firepower. The Chechens' successes were reminiscent of their exploits in 19th-century battles against a czarist army that spent decades trying to conquer the Caucasus.

In recent years, militants in Chechnya, Dagestan and neighboring provinces have largely refrained from attacks outside the Caucasus.

Russian officials and experts have claimed that rebels in Chechnya had close links with al-Qaida. They say dozens of fighters from Arab countries trickled into Chechnya during the fighting there, while some Chechen militants have fought in Afghanistan.

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