Russians set bounty at $10m for rebel Chechen leaders

Posted in Russia | 09-Sep-04 | Author: Anne Penketh| Source: The Independent

Chechen rebel leaders Shamil Basayev (L) and Aslan Maskhadov.

The Russian security services placed a $10m (£5.6m) bounty yesterday on the heads of two rebel Chechen leaders for ordering the Beslan school siege, as they apparently sought to capitalise on widespread public revulsion by targeting their old enemies.

The announcement that there would be a reward for information helping to "neutralise" the Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev and the separatist president Aslan Maskhadov came amid strong denunciations of the terrorist video that showed their child captives in the school gym.

It was coupled with a tough warning from the chief of the Russian general staff, who said that Russia had the right to act pre-emptively against terrorist threats anywhere in the world. But analysts cautioned that the emotive comments made by General Yuri Baluyevsky could not be considered as an authoritative policy statement.

"As chief of staff, he does not make policy and he is not in charge of the Russian foreign intelligence service," said Oksana Antonenko, of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

An EU spokeswoman noted that President Vladimir Putin had not said anything similar to General Baluyevsky, who represents the Russian military.

The statement implies a threat of military strikes, rather than assassinations, and experts said a target could be Georgia, which Moscow has long accused of harbouring rebel bases.

Tony Blair offered President Putin Britain's sympathy and condolences, saying the video pictures underlined "the inhumanity of terrorists who can target and murder children". He described the terrorists' action as "evil beyond the contemplation of anyone".

One of the hostage-takers, captured when Russian special forces ended the three-day standoff last Friday, identified Mr Basayev and Mr Maskhadov as the masterminds behind the siege that left 326 people dead. Half of the victims were children. According to the prosecutor general, Vladimir Ustinov, more than 1,200 people were taken hostage - the first official acknowledgement that the number was so high. The government initially said about 350 people had been seized; a regional official later said the number had been 1,181.

But the identities of the hostage-takers remain murky. Mr Putin repeated this week that 10 of the masked raiders were Arabs and reiterated his contention that the siege was planned by international terrorists. But Mr Ustinov did not mention Arabs yesterday.

According to the Defence Minister, Sergei Ivanov, half of the 30 hostage-takers have now been identified, but not a single Chechen is among them. Yet witnesses from the siege said that the hostage-takers were ethnic Chechens, Ingush and a North Ossetian. Moscow also blamed Mr Maskhadov and Mr Basayev for the Moscow theatre siege of 2002. However, it is not known whether the moderate Chechen leader, Mr Maskhadov, is still associated with Mr Basayev who has claimed several terror attacks including a 1995 hostage-taking at a hospital in southern Russia.