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Moscow Times
September 9, 2009
Mystery Hangs Over ‘Black September’ Blasts
By Nikolaus von Twickel

In the wee hours of Sept. 9, some 400 kilograms of explosives ripped apart a nine-story apartment building on Ulitsa Guryanova in southeastern Moscow, killing 94 people.

Five days later, another powerful blast destroyed an apartment building on Kashirskoye Shosse in southern Moscow, killing 124.

The bombings came after a blast outside a five-story apartment building in Buinaksk, Dagestan, killed 64 on Sept. 4, and were followed by a truck explosion outside a nine-story apartment building in Volgodonsk, in the Rostov region, that killed 17 on Sept. 16.

Ten years later, doubts linger about the official version of the atrocities, dubbed the “black September” of 1999.

Prosecutors blamed a group of Islamic militants from the North Caucasus republic of Karachayevo-Cherkessia for the attacks, saying that they acted on orders from Arab warlords hiding in Chechnya.

But judging from ongoing debates on the Internet, the attacks continue to offer fuel for conspiracy theorists.

The case came to the fore last week, when a U.S. media report suggested that the Conde Nast publishing house was actively suppressing an investigative article about the explosions by war journalist Scott Anderson. Conde Nast management decided not to distribute Scott Anderson’s article “Vladimir Putin’s Dark Rise to Power” to GQ magazine editions outside of the United States, NPR radio reported on its web site, citing an e-mail memo by a top lawyer for the publishing house.

The editor of GQ’s Russian edition refuted the notion of censorship. In an interview with Kommersant this week he said that he had decided himself not to publish the article because it contained nothing that had not been published already.

Critics of the official version say the bombs were planted by, or at least with the knowledge of, the Federal Security Service in order to blame Chechen rebels and fabricate a pretext for the second Chechen war, which ­began just weeks later.

Even though such a theory carries frightening implications for the ­respect for human life within the government, a significant number of Russians believe it. A survey released Tuesday by the state-controlled VTsIOM polling agency said 22 percent of Russians think that the security services were indeed involved in the blasts.

Nikolai Petrov, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center, said this figure was extremely high. “The fact that more than a fifth believe this is evidence of how low trust in their own security apparatus is,” he said.

Petrov said the security service theory could not be proven, but there was ample evidence that the attacks were crucial to the political career of Putin, the hitherto little-known director of the Federal Security Service who was appointed prime minister in August 1999.

“Without the bombings, Putin’s rise would have never been possible,” Petrov said.

Putin has denied speculation that the FSB organized the bombings as “delirious nonsense.”

“The very allegation is immoral,” he told Kommersant shortly before his election as president in March 2000.

The main argument forwarded by critics has been the Ryazan sugar sack incident. Residents of an apartment block in the city southeast of Moscow reported on Sept. 23, 1999, that suspicious-looking men were carrying sacks into the basement of their building. Police then found a detonating device wired to the sacks, but said there was only sugar inside ­ correcting earlier reports that they contained hexogen, the explosive used in the other bombings.

Then-FSB director Nikolai Patrushev told the stunned public the next day that the incident had been an FSB training exercise with a dummy bomb.

Other critics pointed to apparent inconsistencies in the testimony of those accused in the attacks

Authorities presented three men as the core of an Islamic terror cell that planned and carried out the attacks ­ Achemez Gochiyayev, Denis Saitakov and Yusuf Krymshamkhalov.

Gochiyayev, an ethnic Karachai accused of setting up the group and renting shops in the Moscow apartment buildings, is still at large and on the FSB’s wanted list. (Click here for the Interpol report.)

Saitakov, a native of Uzbekistan and a one-time student at an Islamic school in Tatarstan, was killed in action in Chechnya, according to the FSB web site. Nothing else is known about him.

Krymshamkhalov, another Karachai, was arrested in Georgia and extradited in December 2002. He is serving a life sentence in a prison in the Perm region.

Gochiyayev said in a statement released in July 2002 that a friend from his school days whom he believes to be an FSB agent advised him to rent the premises beneath the Moscow apartment buildings for commercial purposes.

Vladimir Pribilovsky, a political analyst who wrote about the bombings in his book “The Age of Assassins. The Rise and Rise of Vladimir Putin,” said there might be an explanation showing that both the men and the FSB were guilty. “Maybe they were double agents and maybe something went horribly wrong with them,” he said.

Petrov, from Carnegie, said he found it noteworthy that none of the main suspects were Chechens, which might indicate that the FSB wanted to avoid stirring up more ethnic hatred. “The Karachai do not have a place as a hostile people in the Russian conscience,” he said.

But Pribilovsky said the Karachai, a Turkic-speaking people numbering fewer than 200,000, did have massive historical grievances toward Moscow because they were deported during World War II. “That is why you might find people among them with enough anger against Russia,” he said.

For many, a major reason to discount the theories advanced against Putin and the FSB is that the theories have been mostly coordinated by Boris Berezovsky, who has lived in self-imposed exile in London since 2001 after falling out of favor with the Kremlin.

Berezovsky, who was not available for comment for this report, was a one-time associate of Alexander Litvinenko, the FSB dissident who was poisoned with radioactive polonium in London in 2006. The Kremlin has repeatedly denied any involvement in Litvinenko’s death.

Litvinenko published a book, “Blowing Up Russia: Terror from Within,” that claimed that the FSB was behind the bombings. It was also he who spread Gochiyayev’s statement to journalists in 2002.

Yury Felshtinsky, a Moscow-born author and historian who co-authored the book with Litvinenko, said Tuesday that no new evidence against his case had been released since the manuscript was written in 2001. “The Russian government has not forwarded a single new argument since then,” he told The Moscow Times by telephone from Boston.

He also denied that Berezovsky’s endorsement made his arguments less credible. “This is completely irrelevant to my arguments,” he said.

Rather, Felshtinsky said, Litvinenko’s death added weight to the conspiracy theory.

Indeed, he and other critics say too many of those who seriously investigated the bombings are no longer alive. Apart from Litvinenko, the list of those who were killed or died under murky circumstances includes State Duma deputies Sergei Yushenkov and Yury Shchekochikhin, who sat on a Duma commission to explore the bombings and died in 2003, and investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was shot dead in 2006.

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