We're going to do it again, says man behind Beslan bloodbath

Nick Sturdee
The Times

Russia's most wanted man has broken cover for the first time since siege

The Chechen rebel leader who masterminded the Beslan school siege last autumn plans more such operations, despite his apparent remorse over the deaths of more than 330 people — half of them children — in the North Ossetia attack.

In his first interview since that bloodbath, Shamil Basayev says that he is in a state of shock over what happened, but blames the Russians for precipitating the bloody end of the siege. Mr Basayev, Russia’s most wanted man with a $10 million bounty on his head for numerous attacks, said he is willing to stand trial for his actions, but does not renounce his war with the Kremlin or attacks on Russian civilians.

The interview, to be broadcast on Channel 4 News tonight, was obtained after months of negotiations through intermediaries. It was filmed by Mr Basayev’s entourage at an undisclosed location last month and the video given to a journalist in the Middle East.

Mr Basayev said that he originally planned to seize one or possibly two schools simultaneously in either Moscow or St Petersburg, but lack of funds forced him to pick North Ossetia, a “Russia garrison in the North Caucasus”, and thus the root of all things bad in war-torn Chechnya, with the ‘silent consent of (the North Ossetian) population.’

He says his intention was to offer the Russian leadership no chance of achieving a “bloodless resolution” to the siege, forcing it to stop the “genocide of the Chechen people”. He says he never thought the Russian leadership would be willing to oversee the death of children, but says that he was “cruelly mistaken” and that he was “not delighted by what happened there”.

He claims that the collapse of the roof of the school gym was the result of flame-throwers used by Russian special forces, not explosives placed by the hostage-takers.

The bearded 40-year-old warlord, believed to be hiding in the mountains of southern Chechnya, looks in good health, and speaks at length in Russian. He sits in front of a banner proclaiming in Arabic: “There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet”. He wears a black T-shirt with ‘ANTI-TERROR’ written in white Cyrillic letters, and explains that he considers the Kremlin, not himself, the terrorists. He reads the questions from a laptop computer, and cradles what he describes as a six-barrelled grenade launcher, a trophy from a Russian base.

Mr Basayev denounces what he describes as the “bloody slaughter that is raging in our land”, and cites not only the Koran and the prophet Adam but also the Chinese sage Zheng He, Winston Churchill and even Charles Darwin.

Mr Basayev states that he is “ready to answer before a court for my actions, for my every step, because everyone should be equal before justice regardless of the authority they hold, and of their position”.

He describes a meeting with his commander-in-chief and formal leader of the Chechen resistance, Aslan Maskhadov, who apparently accused his most effective lieutenant of going too far in Beslan.

Mr Basayev says he told Mr Maskhadov that he is “ready to stand before a sharia court, and answer to it in all its severity if it judges I should be punished”. He says that such a trial is not possible until the Chechen war ends. He is willing to call a ceasefire and open negotiations with the Russians, but only after the complete withdrawal of Russian forces from Chechnya.

Mr Basayev states: “We are planning more Beslan-type operations in the future because we are forced to do so.”

Justifying his attacks on civilian targets, he states: “We are at war and we look at the reality, and not at whether the population has weapons in their hands. We look at the reality of their participation in this war.

“People who approve of Putin’s policies, people who pay their taxes for this war, people who send their soldiers to this war, priests who sprinkle holy water on them ... How can they be innocent? They are just without weapons. Russian citizens are accomplices of this war, it just may be that they have no weapons in their hands. Peaceful people for us are those that don’t pay taxes for this war, people who don’t participate, and who speak against this war.”

Mr Basayev’s interview is likely to deepen President Putin’s embarrassment. The second Chechen war has raged since September 1999 when he was Prime Minister, and his pledge to crush the separatist rebels helped win him the presidency in March 2000.

Since then the hostilities have become a festering wound for the Kremlin, and despite strict media controls dissatisfaction within Russia has grown. Events such as the Beslan school tragedy have caused a profound shock throughout Russian society and have brought the unresolved war ever closer to home.

The rebels, who assassinated Chechnya’s pro-Moscow President Kadyrov last May, have attacked not just civilian targets. Mr Basayev claims in the interview that they launched 15 large-scale attacks on Russian military targets last year, including four attacks involving between 200 and 300 mujahidin.

# A rebel website reported yesterday that Basayev had ordered his units to stop offensive operatons until February 22 as a gesture of goodwill. The report, on www.kavkazcenter.com, could not immediately be confirmed.

LIFE AND TIMES OF BASAYEV

1965: Born in Chechen village of Vedeno

1991: Joins defence of Boris Yeltsin at White House in Moscow. Hijacks aircraft from Russia to Turkey to raise awareness about Chechnya

1993: Fights with Abkhaz rebels against Georgia

1994: Bodyguard of Dzhokar Dudayev, Chechen separatist president. Leads defence of Grozny against Russia

1995: Seizes hundreds at Budennovsk hospital, after members of family killed in Russian raid

1996: Leads recapture of Grozny. Defeated in Chechen presidential elections

1999: Russia offers reward for his capture

2000: Loses a foot in mine explosion

2002: Alive three months after Russia announces his death. Claims responsibility for Moscow’s theatre siege

2004: Claims responsibility for killing Chechen President. Accused of masterminding Beslan school siege

The Channel 4 interview with Basayev will be shown at 7pm tonight.