Kadyrov: Death Squads Prolong the War

In a sharp pre-election turnabout, Kremlin-appointed Chechen chief Akhmad Kadyrov said death squads associated with security forces are seeking to prolong the conflict through abductions and terror.

"People continue to go missing in Chechnya. They are taken away in the middle of the night. Their bodies are not found and they are never seen again," Kadyrov said in a letter he released to reporters in Grozny on Thursday.

In the letter, addressed to senior law enforcement officials, Kadyrov added: "I have no doubts that those who are taking people away at night are the so-called third force, the party of supporters of a horrible war. Through their crimes, they maintain tension in the republic, and their hands are stained with the blood of innocent people."

This "third force" is made up of "kidnappers in armored vehicles," he said. "They are a death squad."

Human rights critics of Moscow's policies in Chechnya have long complained of the operation of death squads, and many critics of the war believe it continues in part because some on the Russian side do not want to see it settled -- presumably because they are profiting from it through various forms of corruption. But to have Moscow's handpicked strongman suddenly appear to endorse those views was remarkable.

Russian human rights advocates described Kadyrov's declaration as a belated recognition of the squads' existence and an obvious campaign ploy aimed at Oct. 5 Chechen presidential elections in which he is considered a leading candidate.

The Kremlin's previously firm public support for Kadyrov has weakened in recent weeks.

It was not clear whether his letter marked a form of lashing back at the Kremlin and distancing himself from Moscow. It could instead be a maneuver undertaken with Moscow's permission in a bid to shore up his waning popularity.

Also, Kadyrov has himself been accused by his critics of running death squads, so the letter has the effect of pointing the finger of blame elsewhere.

By official count, 267 people were abducted in Chechnya in the first six months of this year, with only five of the cases solved, according to Movsar Khamidov, Chechnya's first deputy prime minister, who gave a statement to Interfax.

In his letter, Kadyrov called for creation by the federal government of a special commission to search for the missing and to punish the death squad members.

Death squads in Chechnya "are not a myth at all," said Tatyana Kasatkina, executive director of the human rights group Memorial. "They are a very horrible reality. But there is confusion as to who stands behind these squads. Some believe it is the federal troops; some accuse Kadyrov's men of actually acting as death squads. So I am sure Kadyrov spoke about them only out of political necessity. ... He has to do and say something unusual to whitewash his dark image."

Anna Politkovskaya, a reporter with the Novaya Gazeta newspaper specializing in Chechnya, said death squads "have been spreading terror through the republic for the last three years," but that Kadyrov "until now bluntly and doggedly denied their presence and sinister role."

The death squads in Chechnya were originally formed by military intelligence in order to kill rebels and criminals without taking them to trial, Politkovskaya said.

"Now, for at least a year, many people in Chechnya believe that Kadyrov's security force is responsible for a lot of deaths and kidnappings," she said.

"They take advantage of the situation in the republic to settle their scores of all kinds with Kadyrov's enemies or political opponents."

A military spokesman on Friday denounced Kadyrov's comments, saying they hinted that federal forces were involved in kidnappings, The Associated Press reported.

"Mr. Kadyrov's obvious hint has more in common with pre-electoral politicking than reality," Colonel Vladimir Plotnikov said.