Published February 21, 2011
A wave of killings is sweeping the Russian republic of Kabardino-Balkaria as Islamist insurgents expand their battle across the strife-ridden North Caucasus. Security forces introduced a strict anti-terrorism regime near the ski mountain of Elbrus, after masked gunmen shot dead three Muscovite tourists and injured two others travelling by minibus towards the resort area on Friday.
It comes a fortnight after Doku Umarov, the insurgents' Chechen leader who ordered the Domodedovo airport bombing that killed 36 people in January, promised Russia a "year of blood and tears". The murder of the tourists was almost certainly organised with the aim of discrediting Kremlin plans to develop a £9bn chain of ski resorts across the North Caucasus, announced by President Dmitry Medvedev at the Davos World Economic Forum last month.
Television pictures showed the tourists' bullet-riddled vehicle as security operatives introduced a curfew and identity checks near Elbrus – the main resort in Medvedev's plan.
An explosion at one of the resort's cable cars, also on Friday, brought several cabins crashing to the ground. No-one was hurt in that incident but three more bombs were defused at the resort on Saturday.
The attacks were most likely orchestrated by Islamist militants who have carried out a spate of murders in the republic in the last three months. Kabardino-Balkaria's mufti, Anas Pshikhachev and Aslan Tsipinov, a prominent ethnographer who the militants accused of promoting paganism, were assassinated in December.
The head of administration of a town near the capital, Nalchik, was shot dead last month and five policemen were machine-gunned in a cafe three weeks ago. Several other officers and state officials have died in separate incidents.
Violence in the North Caucasus is rooted in two largely secular wars for independence between Chechen separatists and the Russian army in the 1990s. It has since mutated into a region-wide Islamist insurgency whose leaders are bent on establishing a caliphate under sharia law.
In the last two years the militants have organised a series of large-scale terror attacks, culminating in the attack by two "black widow" suicide bombers that killed 40 people in the Moscow metro last year, and the Domodedovo blast. Targeted murders of specific civilians are also on the increase. "The fighters of the Islamic underground have reached a level of radicalism and intolerance which wasn't apparent five years ago," said Valery Khatazhukov, a human rights activist in Nalchik.
A series of traditional healers have been killed in the North Caucasus. Kabardino-Balkaria was especially shocked by the murder of Tsipinov, 51, a respected anthropologist and beekeeper who organised festivals to celebrate the traditions of Kabardin people, the largest national group in the republic.
The militants claimed responsibility on their website after two men gunned Tsipinov down at his gate in the village of Shalushka, near Nalchik. They condemned him as a "mushrik" (idolator) who revived pagan customs.
"It was a totally senseless death," his wife, Khalimat, told the Guardian, sitting in a basement room full of her husband's collection of Kabardin artefacts, including copper ewers and a horse-hair lasso. "He was a scholar, a father and a Muslim believer who loved his people and their history and had nothing to do with politics or conflict."
The tourists were killed on Friday after a group of men in a black car with no number plates stopped them on a road leading toward Elbrus in Baksan district. The men demanded documents and then opened fire, killing two men and one woman, and injuring two other passengers.
In Nalchik, a smart town of tree-lined boulevards, there is a palpable sense of fear.
Albert, a taxi driver who declined to give his surname, said: "Every other day someone is exterminated. The beardies [extremists] leave leaflets around town threatening, 'don't go to this doctor, don't get your hair cut by a woman.'"
He added: "There was a fortune teller in our district, a Greek. He made predictions by looking at coffee dregs. Innocent guy. They killed him, just like that."
Militants in the republic have said they were driven to violence after police and security forces repeatedly detained and beat conservative Muslims and closed their mosques, especially in the run-up to the 2005 Nalchik raid. The violence near Elbrus will raise fears that bloodshed is creeping toward the Black Sea coast, where Russia will hold the Winter Olympics in three years' time.