Russia talks of pre-emptive strikes

Moscow prepared to hit militants outside borders, its leading general says

September 09, 2004|By Alex Rodriguez | Alex Rodriguez,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

MOSCOW - Russia is prepared to unleash pre-emptive strikes against militant bases in "any region," its top general said yesterday in an ominous declaration that reflected Moscow's resolve to fight growing attacks after last week's bloody seizure of a school in North Ossetia.

"As for carrying out preventive strikes against terrorist bases, we will take all measures to liquidate terrorist bases in any region," Col.-Gen. Yuri Baluyevsky, the Russian military's chief of staff, said after talks with top NATO officials about cooperation in the war against terrorism.

Baluyevsky's remarks came as Russia's intelligence agency, the Federal Security Service, offered a $10 million reward for information leading to the two top Chechen separatist leaders, Aslan Maskhadov and Shamil Basayev.

Russian authorities believe the two Chechen rebel leaders were the masterminds behind the plot to seize School No. 1 in Beslan in the southern Russian province of North Ossetia and take 1,200 children, parents and teachers hostage. The three-day seizure came to a frenzied, tragic end Friday after militants inside the school began firing into the backs of fleeing children, prompting Russian commandos to storm the building. More than 320 hostages died, many of them children.

In the past, Russia has threatened to carry out pre-emptive strikes in remote mountain regions of its southern neighbor Georgia, where Chechen separatist guerrillas have often sought haven from Russian forces. But Baluyevsky stressed in his remarks that Russia would take its war against terrorism wherever it deemed necessary.

As recently as last winter, Russia was accused of fighting the Chechen conflict well outside its borders. In February, two Russian intelligence agents were charged by Qatari authorities in the assassination of Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, a former president of Chechnya and a top Chechen separatist leader.

Yandarbiyev was living in Qatar when he died in a car bomb blast that killed him and injured his 13-year-old son. The two agents were convicted and sentenced to 25 years in prison, though Russia has denied any involvement in the attack.

A spokeswoman for the European Union, Emma Udwin, stressed that Baluyevsky's remarks did not appear to represent official Kremlin policy. "I would pay more attention if it had come from Putin," Udwin, referring to Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, told Agence France-Presse. "We all know that terrorism has to be tackled in a variety of means, but probably such statements are not the first instrument that will bring results."

A spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Russia declined to comment on the general's remarks.

Also yesterday, in the Russian government's first detailed account of the events of the crisis, a top Russian law enforcement official said the explosion that triggered the violent culmination of the crisis occurred when one of the bombs the militants had rigged in the school gymnasium accidentally detonated.

Most of the hostages were jammed shoulder-to-shoulder in the gymnasium, in stifling heat without food or water. The militants had mined the entire school, including the gym where they strung up bombs using the room's two basketball hoops.

The hostage-takers were trying to rearrange the network of mines and trip-wired bombs when one of the bombs exploded, Prosecutor Vladimir Ustinov said. "An explosion occurred, which incited panic inside the school. Many hostages started to flee, and the militants opened fire."

Some of the children killed were shot in the back by the militants as the children fled, Russian authorities and hostages interviewed after the ordeal have said. Russian troops stormed the building after the militants began firing.

The groundwork for the seizure was laid earlier this summer, Russian authorities have said, when it is believed that the militants somehow were able to stash arms and equipment under school floors during a renovation project. Early Sept. 1, before driving to the school in three vehicles, the 32 militants met in a forest to make final preparations, Ustinov said.

After pulling into the school's parking lot, the militants herded stunned children, parents and teachers into the gymnasium, threatening to shoot anyone who resisted. When some of the militants appeared surprised that the target was a school and questioned the mission, the group's leader "killed one of his people to intimidate the others," Ustinov said.

Later, the hostage takers' leader, a man the militants called "colonel," detonated the suicide bomb belts worn by the two female militants in the group - again to discourage any dissent among the others, Ustinov said.

Only one of the 32 hostage-takers survived the raid by Russian forces Friday. That man, Nur-Pashi Kulayev, is being held by Russian authorities and has cooperated in the investigation, Ustinov said.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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