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Turkey and the Chechens

End of a Love Affair?
By Louis Lingg

26 April 2001
The Turks never expected it. Last Sunday, more than one hundred holiday makers were taken hostage by a well-armed group of Chechen paramilitaries, right in the heart of Istanbul's luxury hotel district. Thankfully, the episode ended without bloodshed, but the Turkish government was, and still is, furious. "I don't believe they have done this to us", the Turkish minister for Tourism exclaimed. "We have been there for them all along and they stab us in the back at our most difficult moment".

The above quote requires deciphering: the "most difficult moment" refers, of course, to the recent economic turmoil, that has debased Turkish economy; but what do the words "we have been there for them" signify? Well, actually, quite a lot.

It all started back in 1996, when an Islamic paramilitary force consisting mainly of Chechens seized a Russian ferry in the port of Trabazon, Turkey, and took hostage all 165 passengers and crew on board. The group later turned out to belong to Shamil Basayev, the commander of the Chechen front's eastern section. The event alerted the Russians and other concerned nations to the significant international dimensions of the Chechen independence movement. Up until then, the Russians thought that, despite its hardheaded determination, the Chechen independence front signified nothing more than a romanticized revisionist movement of local proportions. Nevertheless, the fact that the Russian ferry hijacker team included six Turks and was led by one of them, Muhammed Tokcan, made them think again.

It took Russian investigators, who began looking into a possible Turkish connection, almost a year to uncover an elaborate network of logistical, financial and material support provided to Chechen fundamentalists by successive Turkish governments. The Russians had known all along that Iran, Lebanon and, primarily, Libya, had donated millions of US dollars to the Chechens, but they were unable to figure out exactly how they had done it. Investigations into Swiss bank account transactions had not led to any significant findings, while limited funds coming in from Jordan and Syria were carefully monitored without exposing anything



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