Wed, May 28, 2003 - Page 7 News List

Chechnya's black widows are new threat for Russia

KAMIKAZE CHECHENS Women are becoming increasingly active in the escalation of terrorist opposition, despite apparent popular support for Moscow's peace plan


Shakhidat Baymuradova, a rifle slung on her back, fought alongside her husband in the ranks of Chechen rebels until he was killed by Russian troops in 1999.

This month, her hair tucked in a hijab or Muslim headscarf, she strapped explosives to her waist and blew herself up at a Muslim festival where pro-Moscow officials had gathered. At least 16 people were killed.

Baymuradova, 46, whose first name translates as "martyrdom" in Arabic, was the latest in a string of female suicide bombers to strike in Chechnya over the last year -- a frightening new form of rebel action in a decade-old conflict.

Women have traditionally been excluded from the fighting that has razed Chechnya, on Russia's southern fringe. Suicide attacks were almost unheard of in the first years of fighting.

But the "black widows" have become a new threat to Moscow, already shaken by almost daily losses.

Baymuradova's suicide attack on May 14 -- an assassination attempt on a top pro-Moscow official who in the end escaped unhurt -- also killed her woman accomplice.

Two days earlier, another woman was part of an attack in the region's usually peaceful north, driving a truck packed with explosives into a government complex.

"We are witnessing an escalation of the violence in Chechnya," said Salambek Maigov, a rebel envoy to Moscow.

"Seeing that Moscow's promises are empty, people are taking extreme measures. The Kremlin has finally lost control of the situation in Chechnya."

Kremlin officials dismiss the women, saying they act in isolation, bankrolled by mercenaries.

They say a March referendum, which showed overwhelming popular support for Chechnya remaining part of Russia, showed the region is on track for Moscow's peace plan which calls for elections for a regional president and assembly.

"All terrorist acts committed by kamikaze suicide bombers are organized by Arab mercenaries," Ilya Shabalkin, a spokesman for Russia's anti-terrorist operations in Chechnya, said after Baymuradova's attack. "They use this same tactic in Israel."

But Chechen rebel leaders describe the attacks as the illustration of widespread despair in the region, where they say the much-publicised vote has had little impact on real life.

"I cannot see any religious meaning behind these actions," rebel envoy Akhmad Zakayev said by telephone from London.

"They spring from a desire for revenge," he said.

Kheda Yusupova, from the village of Urus-Martan southwest of the Chechen capital Grozny, said grief made women easy prey.

"These women are motivated only by vengeance, and the rebels use this," Yusupova told reporters. "It is only revenge. All the rewards on this earth are irrelevant for a person burdened with grief."

The first major suicide attack in the region came in June 2000, early in Russia's second campaign to contain separatist fighters in the region.

Two women drove a truck crammed with explosives into a local police building -- one was Khava Barayeva, a relative of guerrilla leader Movsar Barayev who orchestrated last year's siege of a Moscow theater in which 129 people died.

Barayeva's attack was so novel that it was recorded in song by one of Chechnya's most popular artists.

The idea that women could fight for the Chechen cause did not hit home for most Russians, however, until the Moscow siege.

Several young women fighters appeared on footage aired on national television after Russian special forces ended the siege with a powerful gas before shooting the rebels.

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