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Jan. 31, 2007
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Litvinenko Shooting Gallery
// At a Special Forces Training Center
The Western media is circulating reports alleging that the Russian Interior Ministry's Vityaz Special Forces use targets featuring a picture of poisoned former FSB officer Alexander Litvinenko for shooting practice. The target is visible in the background of a photograph of Russian Federation Council speaker Sergei Mironov visiting the Vityaz Training Center near Moscow. The authors of the reports claim that their source was a promotional video about the Russian Special Forces.
The scandal exploded on January 25 with the publication of the picture in the well-known Polish newspaper Dziennik, which is owned by the Axel Springer Polska publishing house. The accompanying article, entitled "Russian Commandos Shoot at Litvinenko," reported that soldiers at the Vityaz Training Center in Balashikha, some 40 kilometers from Moscow, were using firing-range targets emblazoned with a portrait of KGB defector Alexander Litvinenko, who died in London in November 2006 after being poisoned with the radioactive isotope polonium-210. The article, which was published on the website dziennik.pl, features a link to a 40-second video clip showing bald soldiers in camouflage running an obstacle course and firing pistols at a shooting range, and in one of the frames a target featuring a black and white portrait of Litvinenko can be seen, riddled with three bullet holes. The author of the article, Dariush Rembelsky, said that the video clip had made its way into Dziennik's office in January: "I was preparing an article about the work of the Special Forces in Poland, Germany, and Russia, and I asked my source, a veteran of the Polish Special Forces, if he had any material about Soviet anti-terrorist forces. He gave me a compact disc and said that it was a promotional film for the Russian Special Forces. I didn't know that the film featured Litvinenko before I watched it." The Polish journalist emphasized that, according to his source, the film was made in 2003. After journalists at the newspaper viewed the film, Mr. Rembelsky said, it was discovered that there was a picture of a Special Forces training session "at the Vityaz Center" that showed targets emblazoned with a portrait of Alexander Litvinenko. "After we called the Vityaz Center, they took down the targets," said Mr. Rembelsky. He declined to name the source who gave him the CD, saying only that his source is a veteran of the GROM Special Forces at the general staff headquarters of the Polish armed forces and that he had worked at the Vityaz Center as an instructor for around three years.

The publication of the article in Dziennik provoked a swift reaction in the British press. The Times published material about the incident that quoted Dmitry Peskov, the Russian president's first deputy press secretary, as confirming that the target did indeed bear an image of Alexander Litvinenko. Mr. Peskov also confirmed that for Kommersant, but he added that "the photograph of Litvinenko was used as a target, but in a private center, not by the elite Vityaz detachment of the Russian Interior Ministry." "[The private center] was opened by a retired officer under the name 'Vityaz,'" clarified Mr. Peskov.

The Vityaz Training Center in Balashikha is not affiliated with the government. The center was founded in 2000 by the social-welfare division of the association "Brotherhood of Vityaz Maroon Berets'" the independent association "Vityaz Security Concern," the company "Tako," and the private security firm "Vityaz Special Forces Veterans." The center, which trains bodyguards, debt collectors, and private security forces, is run by Sergei Lyusyuk, a recipient of the Hero of Russia medal and a former commander of the Vityaz detachment of Interior Ministry Troops.

Mr. Lyusyuk did not deny that his center used targets featuring a portrait of Alexander Litvinenko. "We only found out a few days ago that we had been shooting at Litvinenko," he told Kommersant. "We bought the targets four years ago at the Olympic market, where there were five or six different targets featuring armed and unarmed people and hunters. We bought 1,500 of each." When asked for permission to photograph the target featuring Mr. Litvinenko, Mr. Lyusyuk replied, "there are no more of them - once they're used, they get thrown away."

Mr. Lyusyuk also acknowledged that bodyguards and private security forces are not the only visitors to the center: real Vityaz troops (the 1st special-task regiment of the 1st independent division of the Moscow region troops of the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs – the so-called "Maroon Berets") are also known to stop by. According to him, in November of last year "the Vityaz detachment of the Russian Interior Ministry held a qualifying examination for the Maroon Berets" at his center. "Their center was being renovated, so they asked us if they could hold the competition [at our center]. Mironov (Russian Federation Council speaker Sergei) also attended the event," Mr. Lyusyuk told Kommersant.

Colonel Vasily Panchenkov, the chief spokesman for the Interior Ministry's press service, assured Kommersant that "the Maroon Berets have nothing to do with the scandal." Asked to comment on Mr. Lyusyuk's claim that qualifying examinations for the conferring of maroon berets took place at the Vityaz Training Center last fall, Colonel Panchenkov retorted, "there were no soldiers from the armed forces there. Maybe Sergei Ivanovich Lyusyuk just got his terms mixed up."

After the publication of the article in Dziennik, the Polish internet newspaper Gazeta.pl published photographs of Mr. Mironov with the emblem of the Vityaz Training Center that were taken during Mr. Mironov's visit to the center. In one of the photographs, the speaker of the Federation Council is seen against the backdrop of a target bearing an image of Alexander Litvinenko.

The photographs could not be found on the training center's website itself. Mr. Lyusyuk declined to explain why the photographs were removed from his center's site. "Those Poles are up to something," he said. "And Mironov didn't see those targets and knows nothing about them." Mr. Mironov himself told Kommersant that he had visited the Vityaz Center in Balashikha on November 7 of last year. "I love to shoot, I love weapons, I'm a staff sergeant in the reserves, and I have several special honorary weapons," he explained. Asked whether he had shot at an image of Litvinenko, Mr. Mironov said, "in a firing range I shoot at targets, not at faces."

Alexander Voronov, Marina Chistyakova, and Alla Barakhova

All the Article in Russian as of Jan. 31, 2007

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