'Black Hawk' vigilantes emerge in Russian Caucasus

4th March 2011, Comments 0 comments

A mysterious renegade group that declared an armed fight against Russia's Caucasus militants received backing from a federal official Friday amid concern over the escalating conflict in the region.

Observers have been puzzled by the appearance of the Black Hawks, who emerged in mountainous Kabardino-Balkaria last month with a dramatic promise to destroy "bearded Islamists" on an eye-for-an-eye principle.

Three 'anti-Wahhabi' fighters debuted in a video message in February wearing black ninja-like outfits with only small holes for the eyes.

"These animals... shoot and bomb police, their own neighbours, men, women, old and young," one says in a modified voice about the militants, "for them, blood is cheaper than water. They are not judges, they are executioners."

The group has distributed fliers and appeared to be behind an attack on a house of a suspected militant's family in early February. A note was left nearby promising to "destroy" them if their relative killed another person.

"If they continue (killing our children), we will kill their children," a group member told Ren-TV channel in the town of Chegem in Kabardino-Balkaria earlier this week.

Despite the call for violence, senator Alexander Torshin, who sits on the national anti-terrorist committee, called the underground group "decent people" whose threat to eliminate militants is "wholly natural".

"(The Black Hawks) is a youth organization" whose members "want to live by civilised laws, not by the radical religious Islamic rules," he told the Interfax news agency in an interview Friday.

The police "should not fight these decent people" but "use them", he added.

Observers were divided about the origin of the group, but said that Torshin's remarks signal approval from the federal government.

Although the senator is known for off-the-cuff remarks, he has good relations with the Kremlin, so his words "can be seen as encouragement from the highest level," security analyst Andrei Soldatov told AFP.

Locals suspect however that the Black Hawks are a government-backed project rather than a grassroots struggle.

The group emerged about a week after Kabardino-Balkaria's president offered to form armed brigades from civilians, Nalchik-based political analyst Timur Tenov told a news conference on Thursday.

Kabardino-Balkaria's president Arsen Kanokov said on February 1 that if necessary, the regional government would "hire people to protect our towns" from among locals who knew how to handle guns.

Whoever the shadowy Black Hawks may be, they show the inability of the authorities to control violence in the region, said Alexei Malashenko, an expert at the Carnegie Centre.

"The Black Hawks are yet another sign of civil war. It will not lead to any good," he said.

The relatively peaceful and prosperous Caucasus region has seen an escalation of violence in recent months, with militants gunning down three Moscow tourists who were travelling to a ski resort last month.

The Kremlin fought two wars against separatist rebels in Chechnya after the collapse of the Soviet Union but the insurgency has now become more Islamist in tone and has spread to neighbouring regions.

© 2011 AFP

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