Last week, the brutal war in Chechnya reached a new nadir of barbarity when Chechen fighters seized 700 hostages in a Moscow theatre. Bungled efforts by Russian security forces to gas the attackers caused the deaths of 118 hostages.
About 50 unconscious Chechens were summarily executed. Russia has come under heavy international criticism for using a modified anesthetic, Fentanyl, against the assailants. Yet Russian security forces were right to use an opiate gas in a hostage-taking where the attackers were ready to detonate powerful explosives and kill all 700 captives. Tragically, the operation was badly executed. Worse, security forces refused to tell hospitals what gas they had used.
One fascinating reason for trying to keep the gas secret: In 1988, a C-130 carrying President Zia ul-Haq of Pakistan was sabotaged by a still mysterious gas. The aircraft went out of control and crashed, killing Zia -who was primarily responsible for defeating the Soviets in Afghanistan.
The Soviet KGB, which often employed chemical weapons, remains the prime suspect in the assassination. The same potent Fentanyl derivative may have been used to quickly render the air crew and passengers unconscious.
There is no excuse for taking civilians hostage. The Moscow outrage was an act of terrorism, as Russia insists. But it was a smaller act of terror within a greater one: Moscow's ongoing war to crush the Chechen independence movement, an inconvenient cause ignored by the outside world. The hostage-taking in Moscow was a desperate act by desperate people without voice or hope.
The Chechen, a Muslim people of the Caucasus Mountains, have fiercely battled Russian occupation for 300 years. In hidden genocide during the 1940s, Stalin had thousands of Chechen shot and 500,000 (half the population) sent in cattle cars to frigid Central Asian concentration camps, where 25% died.
Survivors of Stalin's gulag filtered back to Chechnya in the 1960s.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Chechnya, led by Gen. Jhokar Dudayev, declared independence. While Moscow allowed other republics independence, Chechen were denied freedom because of important oil pipelines that ran through their territory and Kremlin fears other Muslim peoples of the Caucasus would seek independence. In 1994, Boris Yeltsin ordered an invasion of breakaway Chechnya. Much of the cost of the war was financed by the United States, which sought to support Yeltsin against his domestic political enemies. President Bill Clinton even called Yeltsin "Russia's Abraham Lincoln." In a near military miracle, lightly-armed Chechen fighters defeated and drove out the Russian army, but at appalling cost. Russia razed the Chechen capital, Grozny, and killed an estimated 100,000 civilians. President Dudayev was assassinated by the Russians, thanks to secret electronic equipment supplied to the KGB by the U.S.
In 1996, Russia granted Chechnya de facto recognition and promised a referendum within five years to decide its future. Chechnya seemed free. But in 1999, in an eerie harbinger of the 9/11 attacks on the U.S., a series of mysterious explosions destroyed apartment buildings in Russia, killing 300 people. Then-prime minister Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer, blamed "Islamic terrorist" Chechens "linked to bin Laden." Russia was swept by nationalist fury and anti-Chechen hatred.
When a FSB (formerly KGB) team was caught planting bombs in another building, and a KGB officer blamed the bombings on the war party in Moscow, the news was hushed up. Putin became president, almost by acclamation, and promptly ordered another invasion of Chechnya.
In the second Chechen war, 60,000 civilians have so far died in Russian shelling and bombing, according to Chechen sources; 170,000 are refugees. The tiny nation has been shattered, covered with mines, and turned into a nightmare free-fire zone for 80,000 badly disciplined, often drunken Russian soldiers and Interior Ministry troops, who are paid special monthly bonuses to fight in Chechnya.
In spite of massive firepower, including devastating fuel air explosives and carpet bombing, Russian forces have failed to crush small bands of fierce Chechen mujahedin. In mass roundups called zachistki, Russians seize all male Chechens over 16, routinely torture and, often, execute them. International rights groups accuse Moscow of widescale murder, torture, rape, and looting.
War in Chechnya has degenerated into a savage battle of attrition, with atrocities and banditry committed by both sides. Moscow conducts its brutal operations under a blanket of secrecy. Foreign and Russian journalists who try to report the ugly truth about this conflict are killed or silenced. Russia has lost an estimated 10,000 soldiers, 66% of their total losses in Afghanistan.
The George Bush administration has shamefully adopted Moscow's propaganda line by branding the Chechen independence fighters "Islamic terrorists," the price of Kremlin support for its anti-Islamic campaign. The Kremlin now claims the hostage-taking was "Russia's 9/11."
Not so. "Terrorism" is the only weapon the weak have against the mighty. Russia could end "terrorism" by finally giving Chechens the independence they have long sought and richly deserve - and be well rid of this pointless bloodbath. If America truly cared about human rights, it would be encouraging Moscow to set the Chechen free instead of turning a blind eye to what the rights group, the International Helsinki Federation, calls a second attempted genocide against this tortured, forgotten people.