Russia tries to make sense of Chechnya colonel murder

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The brazen killing of a Russian army colonel who murdered a 18-year-old Chechen girl in 2000, prompted Saturday a bout of soul-searching, with some mourning the Caucasus war veteran and others fearing fresh ethnic clashes.

Budanov, convicted of the murder of Elza Kungayeva, was shot dead in broad daylight Friday in central Moscow in a contract-style killing.

Even after his death he remains such a polarising figure that the Kremlin and Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, who has called the colonel a schizophrenic and "the enemy of the Chechen people," have remained conspicuously silent.

Supporters including army officers and football fans have deposited heaps of flowers at the murder scene amid a heavy police presence.

"We are proud of him. He did not foresake 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 the honour, 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 another 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 90s remain one of the most tragic pages in Russia's modern history, with Kremlin policies pitting Orthodox Russians against the predominantly Muslim North Caucasus.

Scores of poor, low-educated soldiers were sent to the Caucasus, never to return. Journalist Anna Politkovskaya, rights activist Natalya Estemirova and lawyer Stanislav Markelov who protested abuses in the war-torn region were all killed.

Investigators said Budanov's murder could have been aimed at stirring up ethnic tensions, while others chalked it up to blood revenge.

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.

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 mass-circulation 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

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