Chechen warlord brags of attacks

Rebel says he led school siege, plane bombings in Russia

September 18, 2004|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev claimed responsibility yesterday for recent attacks in Russia, including the seizure of a school in Beslan that led to the deaths of hundreds of civilians.

The 39-year-old guerrilla leader, in an e-mail posted on a rebel Web site, bragged about a series of bombings and other attacks, ridiculed Russian President Vladimir V. Putin and denied Kremlin claims that the violence was part of an international campaign by Islamic radicals.

"Chechens are fighting only Russia for their freedom and independence," Basayev said.

Meanwhile, Putin said the Kremlin was preparing to take preventive action against further attacks, the strongest warning to date that Russia could launch pre-emptive attacks. It was not immediately clear whether Putin was referring to actions only at home or outside Russia's borders.

"Now in Russia, we are seriously preparing to act preventively against terrorists," Putin said, according to the Interfax news agency. It quoted him as saying that the steps would be "in strict accordance with the law and norms of the constitution, relying on international law."

Recalling attempts to appease Adolf Hitler in the 1930s, Putin said there could be no "bargaining" with militants: "One cannot think that by accommodating terrorists' needs, we will be able to gain some advantages and they will leave us alone," he said. "Every concession leads to expanding their demands and multiplying our losses.

"In this war there is no rear or neutral zone, and where terrorists don't meet the necessary resistance, their bases and coordination centers crop up," Putin said.

Basayev has launched numerous bombings and raids against Russian targets - including the seizure in October 2002 of more than 800 hostages in a Moscow musical theater. That standoff ended in the deaths of at least 129 captives.

The rebel leader, who has a $10 million bounty on his head, took responsibility for an August explosion at a bus stop outside Moscow, the near-simultaneous bombings of two planes the same night, a suicide bombing outside a Moscow subway station a week later, and the Beslan hostage-taking.

Basayev said he personally trained the 33 Beslan hostage-takers for 10 days in a village just 12 miles from the school.

He rejected responsibility for the deaths of the Beslan hostages, saying that the bloodshed was caused by the Kremlin's refusal to negotiate and its decision to send special forces into the school unprovoked.

Television pictures of dead and wounded children being carried from the burning gym likely eroded lingering international sympathy for the Chechen rebel's cause.

"What happened in Beslan is a terrible tragedy," Basayev said. But it was Putin, "that bloodsucker from the Kremlin," who caused the carnage in order to "satisfy his imperial ambitions and keep his job," he said.

Basayev's statement was posted on the Web site Kavkaz-Center, based on a server in Lithuania. Under pressure from Russia, the Lithuanian government said yesterday that the site would be closed.

In his statement, Basayev denied claims posted on a Web site that the recent attacks were carried out by a group linked to al-Qaida. There were only two Arab foreign fighters among the hostage-takers, he claimed, not the 10 that Russian authorities reported. Most of the raiders, he said, were from two of North Ossetia's neighbors in the Caucasus, Chechnya and Ingushetia.

Basayev said he received no financial backing from foreign Islamic radicals - specifically including Osama bin Laden - for his recent "operations." He added, though, that if bin Laden offered him money, he would not turn it down.

The cost of the attacks was $21,000, all of it from what he called "the Russian budget" - meaning, presumably, money stolen during earlier raids. The cost of staging the Beslan raid, he claimed, was a mere $9,800.

Alexander Yakovenko, a spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told reporters yesterday that he "did not trust" Basayev's claims that he acted independently. "This is a link in the chain of international terrorist actions, and there is plenty of evidence that replenishment [of money] comes from abroad," he said.

Eyewitnesses and Russian officials have said that the chaotic battle for School No. 1 - which involved guerrillas, special forces and armed civilians - probably began when one of the bombs the rebels planted in the gym accidentally detonated.

Russia's chief prosecutor, Vladimir Ustinov, said that one of the guerrillas was tinkering with a cable linking a string of bombs to a basketball hoop when one of the explosives dropped.

The explosion sent hundreds of children scrambling out windows and doors - and, witnesses said, prompted the hostage-takers to detonate other explosives and begin shooting the fleeing children.

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