x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Chechen rebel leader claims Moscow airport bomb

Doku Umarov took responsibility for last month's suicide bombing at Domodedovo Airport and threatened more 'special operations' if Russia does not allow Caucasus to become independent Islamic state.

MOSCOW // The Chechen rebel leader Doku Umarov has claimed responsibility for last month's suicide bombing at a Moscow airport and threatened more such attacks as a growing Islamic insurgency tries to force Russia to surrender control over its southern Caucasus region.

Mr Umarov's statement in a video posted late on Monday was likely to add to jitters in Russia's capital and increase pressure on the government. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, whose popularity has hinged on his tough line against the insurgency, recently admitted that Russia needs to learn from foreign experience in fighting terror.

The bombing of Domodedovo Airport killed 36 people and injured about 180. Russian investigators said the bomber was a 20-year-old man from the Caucasus region that includes Chechnya, but have not released his name or other details.

Top security officials briefed parliament on Tuesday about the investigation in a closed session, but no details were immediately released.

Vladimir Vasilyev, the head of parliament's security committee, told reporters: "All residents of our country need to realise that we will have to live under the threat of terror for a long time to come."

The Chechen rebel leader has claimed responsibility for an array of terrorist attacks, including last year's double suicide bombing of the Moscow subway system that killed 40 people.

Mr Umarov said he ordered the airport bombing and that many more "special operations" will follow, if Russia does not allow the Caucasus to become an independent Islamic state governed by sharia law.

"Among us there are hundreds of brothers who are prepared to sacrifice themselves" in further attacks, Mr Umarov said in the video posted on a website affiliated with Islamic rebels in the Caucasus.

"We can at any time carry out operations where we want," he said, clad in fatigues and wearing a black skullcap.

Mr Umarov voiced solidarity with Islamic militants in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan.

Russia's Federal Security Service, the KGB successor agency charged with fighting terrorism, refused on Tuesday to comment on Mr Umarov's claim.

Over the weekend, the Kavkaz Centre website released another video in which Mr Umarov also threatened more attacks, saying 2011 would be "the year of blood and tears" and that he could call on 50 to 60 suicide bombers if necessary. He appeared in the undated video with a young man whom he said was being sent to Moscow on a suicide mission.

Chechen rebels have fought two full-scale wars against Russian forces since 1994. Major offensives in the second war died down about a decade ago, but the Islamic insurgency has spread across neighbouring North Caucasus provinces, stoked by poverty, official corruption and security force abuses against civilians.

The Islamic militancy that once focused on Chechnya's independence has taken on the broader goal of creating an Islamic state across the entire North Caucasus region. While attacks in Chechnya have become rarer under the brutal rule of a Moscow-backed regional strongman, Ramzan Kadyrov, attacks on police and officials in neighbouring provinces happen almost daily.

Mr Putin said last week that foreign special services are often more efficient in dealing with the terror threat and that there is a need to learn from their experience. "We need to give them their due - they generally work more efficiently," he said. Mr Putin also acknowledged that high unemployment in the North Caucasus creates a breeding ground for terrorism.

Mr Umarov, who became the top Chechen military leader in 2006, is seen more as an ideological than a military figure, as many terrorist cells operate autonomously and shun centralised command.

Last year, Mr Umarov posted a statement to announce his resignation only to retract it days later, a surprise development attributed to tensions between him and other rebel leaders.

The Obama administration placed Mr Umarov on a list of terrorist leaders after he claimed responsibility for the Moscow subway bombings and a train bombing in November 2009 that claimed 26 lives.

After the airport bombing, President Dmitry Medvedev fired several top transport police officials and ordered heightened security measures at all the country's main transport hubs, including major railway stations.

The attack took place as Mr Medvedev was preparing to speak at the prestigious World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where he hoped to reassure foreign investors that Russia was safe and attractive.

Moscow also has seen a rash of bomb threats, including some that have forced the evacuations of shopping centres and train stations, but no explosives have been found.