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A tangled web amid a war


GROZNY, Russia - Medna Bayrakova remembers the day a middle-aged woman showed up at her door and asked to speak to her 26-year-old daughter, Zareta. They shut themselves in the bedroom for half an hour, and then her daughter left, saying she was walking the visitor to the bus stop.

An hour later, Zareta still hadn't returned and several men in camouflage knocked at the door of the family's ravaged apartment in this ruined Chechen capital.

"We have taken away your daughter. She has agreed to marry one of our men," one said.

Bayrakova protested. "She's a sick girl. She has tuberculosis. She was coughing up blood only this morning."

"We will cure her," they replied quietly.

The next time Bayrakova and her husband saw their daughter's face, it was 24 days later - separatist Chechen rebels had seized Moscow's Dubrovka Theater, along with 800 hostages. Zareta's unmistakable dark eyes were visible above a black veil on the television screen. Her fingers were clasped below a belt of powerful explosives.

There was one last view, this one a postmortem photo taken after federal agents gassed and stormed the theater in the early morning hours of Oct. 26, 2002, leaving all 41 hostage-takers and 129 of the captives dead. This time, Zareta's face was swollen and bruised - barely recognizable.

"They asked me, 'Is it your daughter?'" Bayrakova said. "But the face was all smashed. She looked all beaten up. And then I passed out."

In strapping the explosives belt to her waist that fall day in 2002, Zareta Bayrakova joined the cult of the "black widows," the female suicide bombers who have left much of Russia on wary watch for the mysterious, dark-eyed woman in a long fur coat who is believed to recruit them.

'Black Fatima'

Another attack yesterday left Muscovites terrified once more. At least 39 died and 120 were injured when a bomb exploded on a packed subway car during the morning rush hour. While it remains unclear who set off yesterday's bombing, Russians immediately suspected Chechen separatists. The attack reminded everyone of their vulnerability, even as the entire nation was on the look-out for "Black Fatima."

The middle-aged woman with dark hair, popularly known as "Black Fatima," has been identified as a recruiter for the women known as shahidas, or martyrs. The woman reportedly has been seen lurking on the edges of terrorist bombings during a decade of tensions between Russia and the breakaway republic of Chechnya. Russian troops pulled out of the republic after a disastrous 1994-1996 war, and the mostly Muslim region has exercised self-rule.

On Dec. 9, a young woman blew herself up in front of Moscow's historic National Hotel, killing six others. An older woman in a dark coat and fur hat reportedly was seen slipping away from the scene. On Dec. 5, suicide bombers blew up a commuter train in the southern region of Stavropol, killing at least 44 others and injuring more than 150. Authorities said three women and one man were involved in the attack.

Nearly 150 people died in black-widow attacks last summer - so named in the Russian media because many of the female perpetrators have lost husbands, brothers and fathers in the war in Chechnya.

Abu Walid, a Saudi national who is one of many Arabs who have joined the Chechen militants, is believed to be the commander of the rebels' eastern front in Chechnya. He recently explained the use of female suicide bombers in an interview with the Al-Jazeera television network.

"These women, particularly the wives of the mujahedeen who are martyred, are being threatened in their homes," he said. "They say that they want to serve the cause of almighty God and avenge the death of their husbands and persecuted people."

Sergei Ignatchenko, spokesman for Russia's Federal Security Service, said Arab militants "have abused the idea of Chechnya's independence to suit their own ends."

Chechen commander Shamil Basayev is said to have trained a force of as many as 50 black widows for suicide attacks against Russian targets.

"The Chechens do not have the right to stain with their blood the streets of Russian cities, which are rear bases of the aggressors' army?" the Chechen separatist Web site, Kavkaz Center, asked sarcastically. "A Russian tank driver, with intestines of Chechen children on its caterpillar track, and the pilot of a low-flying warplane shelling a bus with women and infants, are just unscrupulous uses of force, while a Chechen widow blowing herself up together with the pilots who have murdered her children is terrorism and cannot be justified.

"According to their logic, the Chechen nation must die magnanimously and in silence."

The bombing on the edge of Red Square crossed a red line of sorts for many Muscovites.

"Maybe they are doing this out of religious convictions, but I think it's against our God and against the soul of every human being. No normal woman would be likely to do this," said Tatyana Yezhova, a 19-year-old medical student injured in the bombing.

Many Russians see Chechnya's drive for independence as an assault on the nation's territorial integrity, and the carnage wrought by terrorists has only reinforced their support for President Vladimir V. Putin's war in the breakaway republic.

Russia has been widely criticized for atrocities and human rights violations - Chechen men and women have been regularly kidnapped from their homes, tortured and even killed - but the Russian public sees a military body count that often reaches half a dozen a day, as soldiers are ambushed in the hills or blown up by roadside explosive devices.

Chechen terrorists have attacked rock concerts, subway stations and commuter trains full of students. After the hotel bombing, a composite drawing was distributed, purported to be a likeness of Black Fatima. By then, everyone in Moscow knew who she was, mostly thanks to Zarema Muzhikhoyeva, a would-be black widow who in July set out to blow herself up at a restaurant on Moscow's Tverskaya Street.

The 23-year-old resident of Chechnya was stopped by security guards, but her bomb later detonated accidentally and killed a Russian police officer trying to defuse it.

'A virtual slave'

Muzhikhoyeva, whose husband was killed fighting the war while she was pregnant with their daughter, told her interrogators that she had been "a virtual slave" to rebels who convinced her that it was her religious duty to go to Moscow and detonate a bomb at a cafe on busy Tverskaya Street. Investigators told the Moscow paper Kommersant that a woman Muzhikhoyeva knew as Lyuba - Black Fatima - took her to a house near Moscow and visited her frequently during the next week. She told police that Lyuba often gave her orange juice that made her dizzy and gave her a headache.

On the last day, she said, Lyuba gave her more juice, handed her a rucksack containing a bomb and showed her how to set it off.

In a jailhouse interview published recently in the newspaper Izvestia, Muzhikhoyeva said two Chechen men prepared her for the task and dropped her off near the cafe. After being confronted by three men, she said, she went back on the street.

She said she had decided not to pull the switch but feared that her trainers would set it off by remote control.

"Neither I nor they knew what to do," she said. "I was walking along, waiting for death."

Finally, a police officer approached and ordered her to drop her bag.

"I carried out the command and stepped away from this terrible bag," she said.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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