Russian law-enforcement authorities have charged six Chechens -- five in absentia -- with the Moscow apartment bombings that killed 300. Was it an excuse for invasion?
The timing of the announcement by high-ranking officials of the Federal Security Service, or FSB, struck many diplomats and foreign journalists here as highly convenient.
Only days before, Russia's acting president, Vladimir Putin, had been forced in an interview to dismiss mounting domestic and international speculation that Russian security agents had been behind the deadly explosions last fall in Moscow and in two other Russian cities that left nearly 300 people dead and 500 injured.
"Delirious nonsense!" the Russian leader had declared with his trademark firmness. "There are no people in the Russian secret services who would be capable of such a crime against their own people."
And then all of a sudden in late March some of the culprits were identified. Within days of the Putin interview FSB investigators announced six suspects had been charged with the gruesome Moscow apartment bombings. They claimed the hexagen explosive used in the blasts was produced in the Chechen city of Urus-Martan, and a cache of the same type of explosive had been discovered after the city fell to Russian troops.
Last September -- and before the dust virtually had settled on the blast sites -- Russian authorities declared that the bombers of two Moscow apartment blocks and buildings in Volgodonsk and Buinaksk were Chechen militants. Those blasts shocked the nation and, along with the Chechen incursion in August into neighboring Dagestan, were cited by Russian authorities as among the main reasons for launching a full-scale invasion of the breakaway North Caucasus republic of Chechnya.
But doubts have persisted, and foreign journalists and independent Russian publications have found disturbing holes in the official version of the bombings. Skeptical reporters and opposition politicians have suggested that Kremlin officials and/or the Russian security services were involved in planning and carrying out the bombings in a bid to increase popular support for the launching of a military campaign against the Chechens.
The full-court FSB news conference in late March has done little to satisfy skeptics. It has not helped that few details have been provided about five of the suspects -- all said by the FSB to be members of rebel Chechen bands. They have been charged in absentia and authorities claim they are hiding in Chechnya. The sixth -- identified as Ruslan Magayayev -- is being held in Moscow's Lefortovo prison. But, again, the FSB is not forthcoming about his background.
Putin roundly condemned the media questioning of the official version of the bombings as part of an alleged information war being waged against Russia. His aides say that his election rivals are at the bottom of the baseless accusations against the Kremlin. And it is true that Putin's main presidential rivals -- Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov and democratic reformer Grigory Yavlinsky -- seized on the issue as a possible magic bullet to fire at him.
In the waning days of the campaign for the March 26 presidential election, Zyuganov called for a parliamentary commission of deputies to investigate alleged links between Kremlin officials and Chechen rebel leaders, arguing that it still was unclear who had organized the Moscow apartment bombings. He said Putin had benefited politically from the explosions.
Yavlinsky and his allies also started to question the blast as the presidential election approached. Deputies from Yavlinsky's party, Yabloko, sought in late March to get the Duma to pass a motion requiring Russia's prosecutor-general to start an inquiry. That motion failed, blocked by the pro-Putin Unity Party.
But unease about the bombings has not been confined to Putin's domestic political opponents. In January, U. …