- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 22, 2004

MOSCOW — He is Russia’s version of Osama bin Laden, but with a trademark all his own: dramatic mass hostage takings that have often turned to bloodbaths. Like bin Laden, Shamil Basayev is an elusive target who has evaded capture for years.

Chechnya Deputy Interior Minister Sultan Satuyev told the Interfax news agency on Sunday that a search operation involving 1,000 personnel was under way in Chechnya’s mountains after intelligence reports suggested that Basayev was in the republic.

But Russian forces have claimed to have reliable tips on Basayev’s location in the past — and failed to catch him.

Basayev, 39, who lost a leg five years ago while fleeing Russian forces through a minefield, has been helped by the vast sympathy he gets from many Chechens, a people who have resisted Russian domination for centuries and are furious over widespread human rights abuses by Russian troops in the Caucasus republic, experts say.

Basayev, a top leader of the long and bloody Chechen separatist rebellion, also has benefited from incompetence in the Russian intelligence agencies and military, which repeatedly have failed to prevent terror attacks.

A letter attributed to Basayev and posted on a Web site affiliated with Chechen rebels, took responsibility for a recent spate of terror that in two weeks saw the taking of more than 1,200 hostages at the school, the downing of two planes with near simultaneous explosions, and a suicide bombing at a Moscow subway station.

There was no way to confirm the authenticity of the Web note. Basayev said Russian forces had provoked the bloody end to the school siege in Beslan by storming the building. More than 300 people died — nearly half of them children. The plane explosions killed 90 persons; the metro bomber killed nine others.

“We regret what happened in Beslan. It’s simply that the war, which [Russian President Vladimir] Putin declared on us five years ago, which has destroyed more than 40,000 Chechen children and crippled more than 5,000 of them, has gone back to where it started from,” Basayev wrote in the letter.

Born in Vedeno in southern Chechnya, Basayev is believed to have been deeply affected by the May 1995 Russian bombing of the mountain village, in which several of his family members were killed.

One of Basayev’s most infamous attacks took place the following month, when he led about 200 fighters in a siege of a hospital in southern Russia and took hundreds of hostages. Russian forces stormed the building, and more than 100 civilians died. Basayev and his men escaped.

His other claimed terror attacks include this May’s bombing in the Chechen capital Grozny that killed Kremlin-backed regional president, Akhmad Kadyrov. He also said he helped orchestrate the October 2002 siege at a Moscow theater where about 800 people were taken hostage. At least 129 hostages died, primarily from effects of a narcotic gas Russian forces used to subdue the attackers.

After the latest attacks, Russia’s Federal Security Service offered a reward of $10.3 million for information that could help “neutralize” Basayev and Aslan Maskhadov, another rebel leader.

The main challenge in capturing Basayev is widespread sympathy among the Chechen people, said independent Russian military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer.

“When [security forces] move they are reported immediately,” he said, adding that women and children are part of the network of informers.

Anatol Lieven, a senior associate at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and author of “Chechnya: Tombstone of Russian Power,” said Basayev may be hiding in Georgia, which shares a mountainous border with Chechnya. Russian authorities have repeatedly accused Tbilisi of allowing rebels to find shelter.

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