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Blood-feud tradition claims innocent life: Police believe Woking killing was meant as revenge for KGB-linked murder of self-styled Chechen republic's premier. Will Bennett reports

A VENDETTA with its roots in the tangled and bloody politics of the Caucasus led to Karen Reed being shot dead in mistake for her sister on a quiet housing estate in Surrey on Saturday night.

Even the most far-fetched of television thrillers would seem tame compared to the extraordinary chain of events linking the self-proclaimed Chechen republic in the former Soviet Union with the commuter town of Woking.

Miss Reed, 33, was the sister of Alison Ponting, 31, a producer with the BBC World Service, who was living with her when the gunman knocked on the door of the house in Willow Way. Miss Ponting was at work and the killer shot the wrong woman. Miss Ponting is married to Gagic Ter- Ogrannsyan, an Armenian who was jailed for life at the Old Bailey last year for arranging the assassination of Ruslan Outsiev, the self- styled premier of the Chechen republic, and his brother Nazerbeck.

Armenia, which is Christian, believed that Ruslan Outsiev was in London to buy 2,000 Stinger surface-to-air missiles which would be used against it in its war with the Chechens' Muslim co-religionists in Azerbaijan.

Mkritch Martirossian, an Armenian KGB agent living in Britain, appealed to him not to go ahead with the arms deal. When he refused, Martirossian and Ter- Ogrannsyan, who worked for Mr Outsiev, set up the murder.

Mr Outsiev was shot in the head with a Beretta pistol at his pounds 1m penthouse in London. His brother was murdered two days later.

It was never established who pulled the trigger but the two Armenians were charged with murder. Martirossian hanged himself in his cell while awaiting trial but Ter-Ogrannsyan received two life sentences.

As he was jailed, Miss Ponting, who has a degree in Russian from Manchester University, wept in the public gallery. But in a further twist to the case, she had also been arrested by police before eventually being released without charge.

A phial containing enough snake venom to kill 100 people which was being sent from Los Angeles to Miss Ponting's home in west London was intercepted by Customs officers. Inquiries in California revealed that it had been sent at her request.

Police released her because they said it was not an offence to obtain the venom. Such substances have sometimes been used to commit suicide by agents in the former Soviet Union.

Nazerbeck Outsiev was killed because those in the murder plot believed that there was a risk that he would start a vendetta to avenge his brother's death. They reckoned without the Chechens' ferocious tradition of blood feuds.

The Chechen republic, which declared independence in 1991, is the Sicily of the former Soviet Union. It is the headquarters for many of the criminal gangs operating in Moscow and St Petersburg and is awash with weapons and stolen goods.

Its one million people have a long standing tradition of taking a life for a life. Martirossian was dead and Ter-Ogrannsyan in prison so Miss Ponting was the next likely target.

(Photographs and map omitted)