By Maria Golovnina
GROZNY, Russia (Reuters) - A member of the suspected Boston Marathon bombers' extended family said they were victims of a Russian plot to portray them as Chechen terrorists operating on U.S. soil.
Said Tsarnaev, who lives in Grozny, the capital of Russia's volatile Chechnya region, on Tuesday accused Moscow of sending false information to the United States to frame the suspects, ethnic Chechen brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
He said Moscow wanted to convince the West that an Islamist insurgency being waged across Russia's North Caucasus had gone global, resulting in an attack on an American target.
"It would not have happened without the involvement of the Russian side," Tsarnaev, 56, told Reuters in his home in Grozny.
"Russia needed to show the West, including the United States, that Chechens are terrorists ... They needed to blacken their reputation and present these two people and the Chechen people as a whole as terrorists. This is why it all happened."
The Kremlin and Russian law enforcement agencies were not immediately available for comment.
The United States has accused Russia of using heavy-handed tactics against the insurgency but President Vladimir Putin says the West underestimates the security challenge faced by Moscow.
Convincing foreign governments that they also face a security threat from the Islamist insurgents in the North Caucasus might be seen by Moscow as a way of gaining a free hand to act against the insurgency.
Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the grandchildren of Said Tsarnaev's cousin, are accused of planting two improvised explosive devices near the marathon finish line in Boston, killing three people and injuring 282.
Tamerlan was killed in a shootout with police and Dzhokhar was captured after a manhunt.
Said Tsarnaev, a local photojournalist who has worked for various publications including Reuters, echoed views expressed by others in their close-knit family who have denied that the brothers carried out the bombings.
Tsarnaev, who has documented the Chechen conflict as a journalist, appeared intense but calm as he told his story in the large house where he and his family have lived for decades after returning from the Central Asian republic of Kyrgyzstan.
His family belongs to a Chechen diaspora dating back to the 1940s when Soviet leader Josef Stalin deported most of Chechnya's population to Central Asia over concerns they were collaborating with the advancing Nazi army.
He said he had never met Tamerlan and denied rumours that he had once travelled to Chechnya. He added that the brothers were devout Muslims but that did not make them extremists.
"I can't see anything wrong that, with age, people change their views and turn towards religion," he said.
"They are my relatives and they are part of my people. This is not just my pain, it is the pain of the entire (Chechen) people ... We can only feel sympathy. No one is accusing them of anything here."
Harsh public criticism of Moscow is rare in Chechnya, which is run by Russian loyalists following two wars between Russian forces and Chechen rebels seeking independence.
Said Tsarnaev said he had met Chechnya's pro-Kremlin leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, before he spoke to Reuters late on Tuesday. He did not make clear what they had discussed.
Defending the brothers, he accused Russia's FSB security service of sending "disinformation" to the United States which portrayed them as extremists, two years ago.
He said the brothers' parents had told him that the pair had been closely watched by the FBI since then.
Tamerlan, who was once a successful amateur boxer, and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev had lived in the United States for more than a decade but grew up before that in Kyrgyzstan and then, for about a year, in the Dagestan region that borders Chechnya.
"A FOREIGN COUNTRY"
Said Tsarnaev's brother Zhamal, speaking alongside him, said Tamerlan had visited his family in Dagestan last year and had not wanted to return to the United States, but his family insisted he go back to try to obtain U.S. citizenship.
"He said, 'I won't go. I want to stay here'. So he (Tamerlan's father) said he had to force him to go back.
"Tamerlan would sit at home all day long or go out to practice boxing. Sometimes on Friday he went to (the mosque)," Zhamal said.
"He said to his father, 'Let me bring my family (from the United States) and move here'."
Said Tsarnaev nodded and added: "He just felt he was in a foreign country ... So they did not want to live there. They felt it wasn't their thing."
He said he believed that Western accusations of human rights violations committed on Chechen territory had prompted Moscow to come up with the alleged plan to frame the brothers.
"They (Russians) continue to portray Chechens as terrorists and bandits here. And America has continued to accuse the Russian side of violating Chechens' rights," he said.
"The plan was to show the West that Chechens are not kind and good people but that they are terrorists, even in America."
He said he would travel to Dagestan to meet the Tsarnaev brothers' father, Anzor, on Wednesday.
"I don't have any goals or missions," he said. "As a relative I want to see him to express my condolences for the death of his son. I have to be with this man."
(Writing by Maria Golovnina. Editing by Timothy Heritage and Christopher Wilson)