Ethnic tension fears in Russia after Chechen colonel murder
Russian police arrested a dozen people on Saturday as fears grew of fresh ethnic clashes a day after an army colonel who murdered a Chechen teenage girl in 2000 was gunned down, a report said.
Russians were divided over the death of Yury Budanov, who was shot dead in broad daylight Friday in central Moscow in a contract-style killing. He was convicted of the murder of 18-year-old Elza Kungayeva in 2003 and stripped of his rank.
Even after his death he remains such a polarising figure that the Kremlin and Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, who has called the former colonel a schizophrenic and "the enemy of the Chechen people," have remained conspicuously silent.
The murder follows unprecedented ethnic riots in Moscow in December and comes as the country gears up to mark the Day of Russia, a state holiday, on Sunday.
Authorities deployed a reinforced police presence at the scene of December's riots near the Kremlin and detained 12 people, among them Vladimir Tor, the leader of a tiny nationalist group, Itar-Tass news agency reported.
Police forbade access to the area after a number of leaders of banned nationalist groups gathered there overnight, it added.
Budanov's supporters including army officers and football fans have deposited heaps of flowers at the murder scene since Friday.
"We are proud of him. He did not forsake his duty and did not betray his fatherland," Yana Nikolayeva, holding a picture of Budanov, told AFP as her male companion stood nearby clutching red carnations.
Former officer Mikhail Lebedev, who spent six months on a tour of duty in Chechnya in 2003, defended the colonel as a "true leader" who never betrayed his men.
"You have to understand that it was war. He acted according to the laws of wartime."
Budanov was jailed for 10 years for Kungayeva's murder but freed on parole in 2009 after serving most of the sentence, provoking angry protests by Chechens and Russian rights activists.
He was the commander of a tank regiment deployed in Chechnya after the start of the Kremlin's second war against separatists in 1999 and decorated with an Order of Courage, one of the most coveted army honors.
Arrested in 2000 and stripped of his rank and honours, he was found guilty of kidnapping and murdering Kungayeva in 2003.
Charges of raping Kungayeva were dropped during the trial although rights activists still believe there was forensic evidence to convict him on this count. Budanov, who said he thought the Chechen woman was a sniper, denied raping her.
In a snap poll conducted by the popular Echo of Moscow radio earlier in the day, 68 percent of respondents said Budanov deserved sympathy, while 32 percent said they did not feel sorry for him.
For human rights activists, Budanov symbolised blatant rights abuses of the military in the Caucasus, while others saw him as a victim of horrific circumstances.
The two wars with separatists in the 1990s remain one of the most tragic pages in Russia's modern history, with Kremlin policies pitting Orthodox Russians against the predominantly Muslim North Caucasus.
Investigators said Budanov's murder could have been aimed at stirring up ethnic tensions, while others chalked it up to blood revenge.
Ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic Party said the blatant killing in central Moscow was another sign that authorities need to bring order to Chechnya.
"I would like to see what would happen if a US colonel were killed in Washington," party leader and senior lawmaker Vladimir Zhirinovsky said at a planned protest in Moscow attended by around 400 people, an AFP correspondent reported.
Opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta cautioned against jumping to conclusions over the motive of the killing.
"A dead Budanov is dangerous for us all," it said. "Hatred at the ethnic level ends up not in blood revenge but in a bloody mess."
"May he rest in peace," added Moskovsky Komsomolets daily.
"A symbol and the bane of the second Chechen war, the tormentor and tormented, a Russian officer of the Russian army the way it was at the start of the 21st century."
© 2011 AFP