Islamist rebel cheats death to haunt Russia

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Doku Umarov, the shadowy Islamist who claimed last month's Moscow airport bombing, has been proclaimed dead on many occasions only to re-emerge and haunt Russia with new waves of suicide strikes.

The Russian armed forces have tried and failed on several occasions to kill the bearded rebel said to be behind some of the most atrocious attacks on the country since he came to the head of the guerrilla movement in 2006.

First making his name as a figure in the separatist government of Chechnya, Umarov soon styled himself as head of the "Caucasus Emirate", uniting a rag-tag team of rebels in a drive to establish Sharia law in the Northern Caucasus.

The 46-year-old's rise to the top coincided with a return of suicide bombings to Moscow and southern Russia -- a campaign that killed hundreds and shook the country's belief in domestic security.

Promising many more years of "blood and tears", Umarov said Monday that the bombing that killed 36 people at Russia's busiest airport on January 24 was only the start.

"I am showing the (Vladimir) Putin regime one more time that we can carry out these operations wherever and whenever we want," Umarov said of Russia's current premier, who as president launched the second Chechen campaign in 2000.

Umarov has surrounded himself with a core of battle-tested guerrillas whose loyalty he uses to avoid Russian forces in the forested mountains in and around Chechnya.

Russia's futile attempts at his capture have only raised his status among the guerrillas and underscored the security services' failure to crack the relatively-small rebel group.

"It really is hard to capture this guy," said the independent military analyst Alexander Golts.

"But on the other hand, there are a few dozen other such 'emirs', each of them trying to prove his worth," said Golts. "Our secret services are demonstrating there completely helplessness in the Caucasus."

While Umarov's status as Russia's number one enemy is under little dispute, some question whether his capture could do anything to return peace to Russia's poverty-wracked Caucasus.

"The terrorist underground is no longer vertically-integrated," said Andrei Soldatov, one of Russia's leading espionage experts and co-founder of the website.

"It has mutated into a horizontal structure with many cells," Soldatov said.

But what Umarov has proven is his repeated ability to strike panic in the heart of Russians when they expected least.

He was a comrade in arms of Shamil Basayev, the notorious warlord who claimed to have organised the 2004 school hostage siege that killed more than 330 people -- most of them children -- in Beslan.

Umarov assumed the nominal command of the rebels after Basayev's death in an explosion two years later, organising various attacks that included a twin Moscow subway bombing that killed 40 people last March.

Born on April 13, 1964, Umarov was raised in Harsenoi, a village in western Chechnya, and earned a degree in engineering from a local university.

He was first listed as wanted in 1992 for a murder in the northern Tyumen region, according to Moscow press reports, and went underground after federal forces largely quashed the separatist resistance in mid-2000.

Umarov's brothers, Musa and Issa, were killed in clashes with Russian forces. His wife and father were held hostage by federal authorities before being released in 2005.

The Islamist leader has repeatedly justified attacks on civilian targets in his public statements.

"Today we, the mujahedin of the Caucasus, are striving toward freedom that are ordained to receive from above -- to make our Caucasus free and Islamic," Umarov said in his latest video message.

"The whole world stays silent when when our brothers and sisters get killed, and when we do something that we are allowed to do in return, the entire world immediately attacks us," the guerrilla said.

© 2011 AFP

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