MOSCOW – President Vladimir Putin and the most radical of Chechnya’s separatist rebel leaders issued threats Friday that appeared to signal a deepening of their struggle.
Chechen guerrilla leader Shamil Basayev issued a statement in which he took responsibility for a series of recent terrorist attacks, coldly listed how much they cost, and tried to justify the most recent one – a bloody school takeover in the southern Russian town of Beslan – by comparing it to the U.S. nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki near the end of World War II.
“We will fight as we know how and in accordance with our rules. We have no big choice. They offered war to us, and we will fight it until victory,” Basayev declared. The fiercely worded statement was posted on a rebel-linked Web site and appeared to be genuine, although there was no way to verify it.
Putin, reiterating warnings by lower-ranking officials, implied that pre-emptive attacks on terrorist bases abroad might be launched soon.
“We in Russia are engaged in serious preparations at the moment to act against terrorists in a preventive manner,” he told an international meeting of mayors. “These steps will proceed in strict compliance with the law, constitutional standards and the principles of international law. … The front line of this war thrust upon us may run through each street and each house. There is no rear or neutral zone in this war.”
Putin also accused the West of “double standards in the attitude toward terrorism,” an apparent reference to Western calls for Russia to find a political solution in Chechnya, as well as the granting of asylum by the United States and Britain to figures from the more moderate wing of the Chechen separatists.
“There continue to be attempts to divide terrorists into ‘ours’ and ‘others,’ into ‘moderates’ and ‘radicals,’ ” he said. “By no means should one assume that by indulging terrorists we will gain something, that they will leave us alone. … A patronizing and indulgent attitude to the murderers amounts to complicity in terror.”
Chechens exercised self-rule in their Caucasus republic after defeating Russian troops in a 1994-96 war. Russian forces returned in 1999 after a series of apartment bombings blamed on Chechen separatists, and have fought guerrillas since.
Anna Politkovskaya, a journalist with the newspaper Novaya Gazeta who has a reputation for informed and impartial reporting about Chechnya, said it was impossible to tell whether Basayev had written the statement attributed to him.
However, she added, “the ideas the statement contains and the cruel style in which these ideas are laid out are very much Basayev’s … You can almost see his face when you read it.”
Even without firm proof, the Web site posting “is a pretty obvious indication that acts of terror like the one carried out in Beslan will continue to happen, because regardless of whether it was Basayev himself who wrote that statement or not, it was written by someone – and that someone appears to be very much prepared to carry on doing things like that,” Politkovskaya said.
Basayev’s statement said that the school hostage-takers had demanded an end to the war in Chechnya, the withdrawal of Russian troops and Putin’s resignation. It also blamed Putin for the Sept. 3 shootout that ended the siege with about 330 hostages dead, calling him “the blood sucker from the Kremlin” and charging that he ordered the school to be stormed.
Russian authorities insist that special forces moved in to overpower the militants, who had taken more than 1,100 people hostage, only after an apparently accidental explosion inside the building led to escape attempts by hostages and an outbreak of shooting.
Basayev also lashed out at international criticism of the Beslan hostage-taking.
“Today, when the whole world ‘with outrage’ demands that we stop, we find this ridiculous and ask: ‘What have you done for us that we obey you?’ ” he wrote. “We ask George Bush: ‘Was the nuclear bombardment of Hiroshima and Nagasaki a barbaric and brutal act, and how many children were killed there?’ “
In perhaps the most chilling and caustic part of Basayev’s statement, he took responsibility for other recent attacks. Basayev described the Aug. 24 suicide bombings of two airliners, killing all 90 on board, and another suicide bombing a week later that killed 10 bystanders near a Moscow subway station, as a protest against the Aug. 29 election of Kremlin-backed Alu Alkhanov as Chechen president: “That was us casting our votes … for the Kremlin’s wimp No. 1 from Chechnya, Alkhanov.”
Basayev described the school takeover in Beslan as the “North-West operation,” drawing a parallel to the October 2002 siege of a Moscow theater at which the musical “North-East” was being performed. That standoff, also seen as linked to Basayev, ended with 129 hostages’ deaths, nearly all from a gas used by security forces who stormed the building.
“The plane blasts cost me $4,000 … and the North-West operation 8,000 euros,” Basayev said. “The weapons, vehicle and explosives which were used – all spoils of war. We only had to pay for food and equipment.”
The statement also included what Basayev said was a letter to Putin, in which he proposes a peace deal under which Chechnya would become independent.