Basayev follows tradition of resistance Family has history of defying Russians

June 19, 1995|By Los Angeles Times

MOSCOW -- Shamil Basayev, the guerrilla commander who controls the fate of hostages in southern Russia, inherited a long and proud ancestral tradition of suicidal resistance to invaders of his native Chechnya.

Central to that tradition was the Basayev family's stone house -- built in the year 1010 and now reportedly destroyed by Russian bombs -- in the village of Vedeno.

A great-great-great-grandfather died as a deputy to Imam Shamil, for whom Shamil Basayev was named. The imam, fighting to create an independent Islamic state, held off the czar's army for four decades before surrendering in 1859.

A great-grandfather was killed fighting the Bolshevik army, and his son died when Soviet dictator Josef V. Stalin deported 800,000 Chechens to Kazakhstan and Siberia in cattle cars in 1944.

"If the Russians come in here and take our home, what's the point of living?" Shamil Basayev's father, Suleyman, asked a visitor to the stone house last winter after the Russian army invaded Chechnya to crush its latest drive for independence.

Tragedy befell the Basayev household in a Russian air raid late in May. After losing his village, his home, his mother, two children, a brother, a sister and six other kin, Mr. Basayev, 30, did last week what no ancestor -- and no other Chechen warrior -- had ever done.

The soft-spoken rebel commander took vengeance outside his homeland.

He struck in spectacular fashion, storming a city of 100,000 people with scores of guerrillas who slipped in undetected, seized government buildings, grabbed hostages and herded them into a hospital, demanding nothing less than a Russian surrender in Chechnya.

"We are sick of watching our villages being bombed and our women and children being killed," the bearded commander explained from the hospital in Budyonnovsk, surrounded by Russian troops, armored personnel carriers and sharpshooters. "Let them come and storm the place. It does not matter to us when we die. What matters is how we die. We must die with dignity."

Few who know him or understand how serious a threat the Russian government believes he is think he will get out of Budyonnovsk alive.

Like most Chechens, Mr. Basayev is a Muslim, as attuned to the Koran as to military manuals. He wears the green headband of an Islamic militant, insists that only Allah can stop him from fighting and believes that dying in a holy war will take him straight to paradise.

When the Soviet Union broke up in 1991 and Chechen President Dzhokar M. Dudayev declared independence, Mr. Basayev began preparing for a separatist struggle against Moscow.

Late that year he hijacked a Russian passenger plane to Turkey, where Chechen guerrillas were getting assistance.

Then he raised a 500-member volunteer force to help Abkhazia, another Caucasian ministate, break away from rule by Georgia in 1992.

For younger Chechens, the chance to fight alongside Mr. Basayev became a reason in itself to take up arms, "something you could brag about for the rest of your life," said Georgy Derluguian, a sociology professor studying Russia's Caucasus region.

Mr. Basayev rose from chief of Mr. Dudayev's bodyguards to deputy commander of the Chechen general staff and then field commander of the Chechen forces, the third rank in the Chechen hierarchy.

Asked about Mr. Dudayev's oft-repeated threat to take the war to Russia, Mr. Basayev said in April: "As far as I am concerned, we shall never attack a Russian city because that would be terrorism, extremism. . . . Why should civilians suffer?"

But he added: "Anything can happen when you are up against a wall and there is nowhere to retreat. We haven't come to this stage yet. If there is no way out for us then we will go, like Dudayev says, into Russian cities and towns and engage in terrorism, because we don't intend to surrender."

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