THE MOSCOW TIMES . COM
Thursday, June 29, 2006. Page 1.
Putin: Destroy Hostage Killers
Francesca Mereu and Simon Saradzhyan
Alexander Zemlianichenko / AP
President Vladimir Putin ordered the security services Wednesday to seek and destroy the killers of four Russian hostages in Iraq.
The tough remarks indicate the Kremlin is no longer shy about carrying out extrajudicial executions of suspected terrorists and radicals abroad. They also suggest Russia's security services are reclaiming the KGB's global reach in covert operations.
"The president ordered the special forces to take all necessary measures to find and destroy the criminals who killed Russian diplomats in Iraq," the Kremlin press service said.
Putin, speaking during a Kremlin meeting with Saudi Prince Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, also said Russia would be "grateful to all its friends for any information on the criminals who killed our citizens in Iraq," the Kremlin press service said.
The Foreign Ministry on Monday confirmed that four diplomats working at Russia's embassy in Baghdad had been killed. An al-Qaida-linked group posted a video on a web site Sunday showing the execution of three of the four men, who were kidnapped June 3. The kidnappers had demanded the Kremlin pull federal troops out of Chechnya.
Putin did not specify which security service would be assigned to spearhead the hunt for the kidnappers. But Nikolai Patrushev, director of the Federal Security Service, or FSB, was the first senior security official to publicly promise to do all in his power to fulfill the order.
"We must work in such a way that no terrorists who commit crimes will evade responsibility," he said. "We will work, no matter how much time and strength is required."
Patrushev also made it clear that the order reflected the Kremlin's vision of how the security services should be dealing with terrorists outside Russia. "This is no accidental order. It fits the logic of what we are doing," he said.
Currently, FSB operations abroad are limited mainly to the prevention of diplomats being recruited by foreign intelligence services. The FSB's border guard service conducts intelligence operations within a 200-kilometer perimeter of the Russian border, according to Agentura.ru, which monitors the security services.
However, that will all change once legislation currently in the State Duma becomes law. The bill in question, which is to be passed in a second reading on July 5, gives the FSB the authority to dispatch commandos to strike terrorist groups and bases abroad.
Currently, foreign operations are supposed to fall under the jurisdiction of the Foreign Intelligence Service, or SVR, and the Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces, or GRU. However, the SVR can use force abroad only to protect embassy personnel and visiting officials.
Authorities previously have not admitted to participating in the extrajudicial killings of people labeled as terrorists by the Kremlin. Russia denied that two Russians convicted in Qatar in the 2004 assassination of former Chechen rebel leader Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev had played a role in his death, saying they were only agents gathering intelligence. The two, Anatoly Belashkov and Vasily Bogachev, were later extradited to Russia to serve out their prison sentences. Their whereabouts are currently unknown.
The special services, however, have not hesitated in claiming responsibility for killings inside Russia, including the deaths of Chechen rebel leaders Aslan Maskhadov and Abdul-Khalim Sadulayev and Arab warlord Khattab.
While targeting someone like Yandarbiyev would be relatively easy, given the fact he lived openly in Qatar, fulfilling Putin's order to find the hostage killers in war-torn Iraq might be mission impossible.
"This is more of a statement meant for the public than a real order," said Andrei Soldatov, head of Agentura.ru, noting that Russia's once-formidable network of agents and informants in Iraq had shrunk when Russia faced financial difficulties in the 1990s and following the regime change in Iraq in 2003.
Russian agents would need assistance from U.S.-led forces, the Iraqi government and the Saudi secret services, said Ivan Safranchuk, head of the Moscow office of the Center for Defense Information. That Putin decided to announce the order in the presence of the Saudi prince indicated Russia was seeking the cooperation of the Saudi secret services, which are in a better position to spy on al-Qaida-linked groups in Iraq, he said.
Iraq's ambassador to Moscow, Abdulkarim Hashim Mustafa, also said it would be very difficult to track down the kidnappers. He said the Iranian government, Hamas and the League of Arab Nations all tried to locate the kidnappers for talks earlier this month at Putin's request, Gazeta.ru reported.
While relying on foreign services to locate the executioners, the security services also face a formidable task determining who ordered the killings. Safranchuk speculated that Chechen rebels or their allies might have pushed for the killings to avenge the death of Sadulayev in mid-June.
He said violent Iraqi separatists would not have gone after the Russians themselves, given the fact that Moscow vehemently opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
Safranchuk and Sergei Goncharov, a security service veteran, predicted the United States and Iraq would not have a problem with Russia's hunting down the killers. "Above all, we should be thinking about our citizens. This is, by the way, exactly what the U.S and Israel always do," said Goncharov, whose Alfa unit has conducted a number of special operations, including the storming of Afghan ruler Hafizulla Ammin's palace in 1979.
Goncharov also said he believed Russian agents would be able to find and kill the kidnappers.
"Russia does have special services officers capable of implementing the assignment abroad," he said.
The Duma, meanwhile, passed a nonbinding resolution Wednesday that accused U.S.-led forces of allowing the diplomats' abductions and killings to happen.
The resolution, approved in a 428-0 vote, said that "the responsibility for the situation in Iraq, including the security of its citizens and also of foreign specialists, lies with the occupation powers. We really believe that they could have prevented this tragedy from happening."
It also strongly condemned "the criminals who committed this atrocious crime" and demanded that Iraqi authorities and coalition forces carry out a thorough investigation.
"It is a tough but proper statement," Duma Deputy Speaker Oleg Morozov told reporters after the vote. "Unfortunately, we were right when we said that we were against the war."
Liberal Democratic Party leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky urged his fellow deputies to look into the reason why "the Russian leadership was unable to protect the diplomats."
"The Americans are well-protected, but our bureaucrats sit in their offices in Moscow and don't know anything about what is going on in Iraq," Zhirinovsky said.
At the United Nations, Russia ran into a roadblock Wednesday in an appeal to the Security Council to condemn the diplomats' killings, Reuters reported.
The United States and Britain objected to parts of a draft Russian statement, arguing it amounted to a slap at the U.S.-led forces.
Russian diplomats said talks on the text were continuing; U.S. and British envoys played down any differences.
"They're going to have a statement. It's just a question of when," U.S. Ambassador John Bolton said. The Russian Foreign Ministry is now weighing alternative ideas, he said.
Staff Writer Oksana Yablokova contributed to this report.