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Chechens in Turkey worry after latest militant slaying

08 october 2011, 17:50
Opponents of Chechnya's pro-Kremlin regime have for years thought of Turkey as a safe haven. But last month's killing of three Chechen militants on an Istanbul street -- the fourth such murder in as many years -- is sowing alarm within the small diaspora community, AFP reports.

"Right now the fear is very real. People no longer have confidence in the state security forces," a source within the Chechen community told AFP requesting anonymity.

"Some people think that these murders were authorised" by Ankara, he said.

On September 16, Musaevi Berkkhazh, Rustam Altermirol and Zavrbek Amriev were shot dead on the street as they left an Istanbul mosque following Friday prayers.

The 33-year-old Berkkhazh was reported to be a senior Chechen militant, in Turkey to receive medical treatment for war wounds. The other two men were his bodyguards, local media reported.

The shooting was the fourth killing of militants and opponents of Chechnya's pro-Kremlin authorities in four years. Gazhi Edilsultanov was killed in September 2008, Islam Canibekov in December the same year, and Ali Osaev in 2009.

Berkkhazh was reportedly a lieutenant of Doku Umarov, the separatist Chechen leader who is said to be behind a number of deadly attacks against Russia, including the Moscow airport bombing in January and the metro attack in March 2010.

Within the 1,000-strong Chechen community in Istanbul the finger of blame for the killings is pointed at Russia, which in the past has also been accused of being behind the 2009 murders of Chechen militants in Dubai and Vienna.

"My husband was ready to become a martyr," Berkkhazh's widow told AFP. "But we didn't think that such a thing could happen to us in Turkey.

"We thought that Turkey was an independent country and that Russians couldn't come and kill us here."

The suspicion of Moscow's hand has been fanned by reports in the local media that the shooting was organised by two Russian agents; that the weapons used were allegedly of the type favoured by Russian intelligence; and by a photograph showing one of the alleged killers, Chechen Ziyaeddin Mahaev, with Chechnya's Kremlin-backed President Ramzan Kadyrov.

The silence from the Turkish authorities on the killing has only heightened suspicion.

"When a Chechen leader was killed in Austria, the European Union protested and it hasn't happened since," Mansur Abuyev, a 25-year-old Chechen, told AFP as he participated in a recent demonstration in front of the Russian consulate in Istanbul.

"Here, no one has said anything and the security services haven't cleared anything up," he said. "We don't expect anything else from the Turkish state any more."

The Turkish interior ministry declined to comment when asked about the Berkkhazh investigation and the general situation of Chechens in Turkey.

Turkey, which had sought to beef up its influence in the Caucasus following the Soviet breakup, was so well known for being Chechen-friendly that for years shopkeepers in Istanbul's market sold Chechen separatist flags.

But analysts say that the country, which depends on Moscow for a huge chunk of its energy supplies -- it imported 60 percent of total domestic gas consumption last year alone -- is becoming more pragmatic.

"While in the past it has been a rear base for raising money (for the Chechen rebel cause) and taking in Chechen wounded.... Turkey is abandoning its former focus of solidarity with the Caucasus," says Laurent Vinatier, a French researcher specialising in the Caucasus.

"It seems that it is less and less able to resist Russian demands" and "is getting trapped in realpolitik," he said.

The Kremlin has been fighting insurgents in the North Caucasus since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, waging a war between 1994 and 1996 against rebels seeking Chechen independence.

Following a second war in Chechnya in 1999, after which Moscow installed a former rebel-turned-Kremlin supporter at the helm of the restive republic, the militants turned more Islamist with the aim of imposing an Islamic state in the region.

Since the end of major military operations in 2000, Chechen militants have waged an increasingly deadly insurgency, with the unrest spreading into other areas of the North Caucasus.

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