- The Washington Times - Friday, September 24, 2004

MOSCOW — Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov says militant warlord Shamil Basayev should go on trial for the school siege in the southern Russian city of Beslan that killed at least 320 persons.

In a posting on a rebel Web site, Mr. Maskhadov, who has denied any involvement in the Sept. 1-3 siege by Muslim militants, pledged to bring his former deputy to justice once the war in Chechnya ends.

“I categorically declare that after the end of the war, persons who are guilty of carrying out provocative acts will be taken to court, including Shamil Basayev,” said Mr. Maskhadov, who was elected Chechnya’s president in 1997 after it won de facto independence in the first war in 1994-96.

Russia says both men are terrorists and it blames both for the school massacre.

There was no way to confirm the authenticity of the Maskhadov statement, but the same rebel Web site has carried his statements in the past.

Basayev took responsibility for the school raid, twin Russian plane bombings that killed 90 persons and a suicide attack near a Moscow subway station that killed 10 in a statement posted on a separate rebel Web site last week.

Basayev, who finished second to Mr. Maskhadov in the presidential elections, once was Mr. Maskhadov’s deputy.

Mr. Maskhadov later dismissed Basayev as head of the rebels’ military committee and ordered an Islamic court to investigate him.

Russia’s Federal Security Service has offered a reward of $10.3 million for information that could help “neutralize” both Basayev and Mr. Maskhadov, who are believed to be in Chechnya or nearby regions.

Akhmed Zakayev, Mr. Maskhadov’s envoy who has been granted asylum in Britain, repeatedly has denied his involvement in the school seizure.

“I categorically declare that the government of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria and the armed forces of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria under my command have nothing to do with this terrorist act,” said the statement, which referred to Chechnya by its rebel name.

At the same time, it said that the school seizure and other attacks were the consequence of Russia’s “genocidal war” in Chechnya and called for a political solution to the conflict under international guarantees.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has ruled out peace talks with rebels, saying they are terrorists who must be eliminated.

Meanwhile, Russia said yesterday that a top Saudi-born rebel commander in Chechnya had been killed by federal forces, confirming reports by his relatives.

Maj. Gen. Ilya Shabalkin, a spokesman for the federal headquarters in Chechnya, said that Abu Walid, a Saudi-born rebel chief, was killed by federal forces in mid-April, the Interfax news agency reported.

Walid’s death was reported by Arab TV stations in April, but Russian officials hadn’t confirmed his death until now.

Gen. Shabalkin said that Walid was killed in a Russian “special operation,” but wouldn’t give further details. Another Arab, Abu Khavs, has succeeded Walid as a top al Qaeda emissary in Chechnya, he added.

Between 100 and 150 Arab and other foreign militants are in Chechnya, Gen. Shabalkin said.

He said that “the Arabs are calling the shots” in Chechnya by distributing money smuggled in from abroad.

He said that Walid and several other Arabs became acquainted with Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan during the early 1990s. In 1993, bin Laden sent them to the neighboring ex-Soviet republic of Tajikistan, where Islamic opposition militants were fighting a Moscow-backed secular government, and in 1995 they moved to Chechnya, Gen. Shabalkin said.

Separately, Mr. Putin defended the radical political changes he announced after the Beslan school hostage crisis.

Mr. Putin said the United States and other countries had seriously reformed their systems after the September 11, 2001, attacks and that Russia was intent on providing its citizens both stability and democracy.

“We made our choice 10 years ago,” Mr. Putin said at an international media conference organized by the ITAR-Tass news agency.

Much of Mr. Putin’s speech appeared to be his response to steady criticism from the West for presiding over a rollback in press freedoms won since the Soviet collapse.

Two independent television stations with national reach have been shut down — purportedly for financial reasons, although few doubt the Kremlin’s interest in seeing them gone.

Some critics, including the European Union and the United States, have warned that the planned reforms — including an overhaul of the electoral system and a strengthening of security agencies — signaled a retreat from democracy.

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