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Sunday, August 29, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
By Steven Lee Myers
MOSCOW It took 2½ days for Russia's security service to announce what virtually everyone else believed from the moment two domestic passenger airlines plunged to earth simultaneously on Tuesday night: Russia had suffered yet another gruesome blow from terrorists.
If recent history is any guide, though, Russians may never know how or who or why.
Some of the deadliest terrorist attacks here in recent years remain shrouded in the miasma of Russia's endless conflict in Chechnya and, critics say, by the penchant for secrecy that has been a hallmark of the presidency of a former KGB colonel, Vladimir Putin.
Some of the attacks have been solved, at least nominally, in that officials have announced arrests and even held (closed) trials in a handful of cases. Many more have not been solved.
The president of Chechnya, Akhmad Kadyrov, died in May when a bomb exploded beneath a stadium in the republic's capital, Grozny, in circumstances that have still not been fully explained.
A woman, perhaps with an accomplice, blew herself up aboard a Moscow subway car in February, killing at least 41 early-morning commuters. Even the death toll in that bombing remains unclear: The authorities have been accused of underreporting the death toll.
"Remember Nord-Ost?" asked Vladimir Ryzhkov, one of the few liberal members left in Russia's Parliament. He meant the 57-hour siege of a Moscow theater by at least 41 heavily armed Chechen guerrillas in October 2002. All the guerrillas died, as did 129 hostages, when commandos stormed the building after pumping it full of nerve gas of a type that to this day has not been made public. Nor have many other details of the siege.
"Until now, no one has been held responsible," Ryzhkov said. "Can you imagine that in the United States? How did so large a group of well-armed terrorists take a large theater in Moscow hostage? This is a picture of Putin's Russia."
Critics of that picture have accused Putin's Kremlin of exploiting terrorist attacks for political reasons, whether to whip up public support for the conflict in Chechnya or to hand greater power to the security agencies.
To this day, however, there are those who believe that the FSB was behind the bombings in an effort to build momentum for another unpopular war in Chechnya. The suspicion was fueled by the fact that FSB agents had been discovered with explosives in the basement of a fourth apartment building. (It was a training exercise, officials hurriedly explained.)
Conspiracy theories aside, Russia has suffered terrorists attacks with a frequency and of a scale as grave as those of any other country in the world, including Israel and the United States.
In 2003 alone, 11 suicide attacks killed at least 223 people across the country, including six people in December in front of the National Hotel in Moscow, a landmark only yards from the walls of the Kremlin. As in most terrorist attacks, most of the victims were innocent civilians.
Russia's investigations into terrorism, however, contrast greatly with that of other countries. In the United States, the general outlines of the Sept. 11 attacks were disclosed within days or weeks by law-enforcement officials. Under pressure from relatives of the victims demanding a thorough accounting, the Bush administration was forced to appoint the commission that this summer produced a voluminous account not only of the attacks themselves but also of the government's handling of them.
Something similar is under way in Spain in response to the bombings of four commuter trains in Madrid in March, an attack that brought about a change in national leadership. In Russia, however, terrorist attacks tend to quickly disappear from the public discourse, if not its collective consciousness. That is in large part because of the Kremlin's near absolute control of politics and of the state media, including all the national television networks.
It also reflects a resignation grudging, some say that governments in Russia have never trusted people with the truth. After the Nord-Ost siege, the lower house of Parliament, then controlled but not yet dominated by supporters of Putin, voted against the creation of a commission to investigate what exactly happened.
"There is no place for this kind of discussion in Russia," said Ryzhkov, the member of Parliament. "It does not mean the public is not interested. Society wants to know the truth. Society wants to know what the authorities are doing to make people safe."
In the days after Tuesday's crashes, officials discounted the possibility of terrorism, offering myriad, often contradictory statements suggesting that human or mechanical errors were the cause, despite the coincidence of simultaneous air disasters. In unusually pointed criticism, newspapers accused the Kremlin of trying to play down a terrorist attack that threatened to overshadow today's election in Chechnya to replace Kadyrov.
By Friday, however, the FSB announced that traces of explosives had been found in the wreckage of one of the two airliners that crashed, killing 89 passengers. Investigators now suspect terrorism in both crashes, possibly carried out by suicide bombers. An international Islamic extremist group also claimed responsibility, saying its fighters had avenged the deaths of Muslims in Chechnya and elsewhere.
Sergei Ignatchenko, the chief spokesman for the FSB, said in an interview on Friday that it was important for investigators not to rush to conclusions and to make information public only when it was based on hard facts, which can be difficult to come by. Asked about the other recent attacks, Ignatchenko said the authorities had made great strides. They had, for example, identified the people behind Kadyrov's assassination and the bombings in the subway and outside the National Hotel, he said.
"But in the interests of the investigation," he said, "we are not going to reveal this right now."
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