Saturday, December 5, 2009

Terror Claims in Russian Rail Crash

On Thursday, nearly a week after a bomb caused the derailment of the Moscow-to-St. Petersburg Nevsky Express, killing 26 people, a Chechen rebel group claimed responsibility.

The Armed Forces of the Caucasus Emirate said they were behind the bombing and promised that it was just part of a larger campaign of attacks against key infrastructure points across Russia. The group is led by Doku Umarov, the self-styled "emir" of the caliphate of the Northern Caucasus. Umarov is a different kind of Chechen leader. Since the end of the Soviet Union, Russia has fought two wars against would-be separatists to keep Chechnya within Russia. As part of their campaign, Russia managed to kill off much of the old Chechen leadership and buy off the ones they couldn't (like the Kadyrov clan who are Chechnya's current pro-Moscow leaders). But these old Chechen rebels were separatists at heart, they wanted an independent homeland; Umarov is more in the bin Laden mold, he sees himself fighting a war to create a pure fundamentalist Islamic state.

Though many fingers have pointed towards the Caucasus region as the likely source of the Nevsky attack, there are those who doubt that Umarov has the ability to carry out a mission so far from his base of operations. And his group does have a history of claiming responsibility for things they didn't do; they also claimed to be behind the explosion that killed 75 people this summer at Siberia's Sayano-Shushenskaya hydroelectric plant (a faulty turbine was the true cause of the disaster).

The Nevsky Express is a luxury train favored by Russia's business and political elite (two high-ranking government officials were among the dead last Friday), for that reason I think you can't ignore the possibility that far-right, ultra-nationalist groups might be behind the attack. In fact one ultra-nationalist group "Combat 18" claimed responsibility soon after the attack. Groups like "Combat 18" are critical of the Russian government for Russia losing the "empire" it once had as the Soviet Union and for, what they think, are lax immigration policies. These kind of groups have in the past been content with assaulting, and sometimes killing, immigrants from Africa, Central Asia, and anyone else they deem not Russian enough for their liking. But something like the Nevsky Express, a mode of transport favored by the political/economic elite and tourists, would be a tempting target for them.

Meanwhile part of the blame for the death toll in the crash is falling on Germany - more specifically on the German-made seats in the train's coaches. Many of the deaths and serious injuries were said to have come from the last car of the train, which violently derailed. Rescue workers said that many were killed not by the bomb, or by fire, but by being crushed when their seats broke loose and piled into each other. The Kommersant newspaper said that the seats' lightweight aluminum construction led to their collapse and that the heavier, steel-framed, Russian-made seats common on other Russian trains would have fared better in the crash, meaning there would have been fewer casualties.
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