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Russia offers $10 million bounty for rebels

Thursday, September 9, 2004

MOSCOW -- A wounded Russia threatened Wednesday to strike against terrorists "in any region of the world," offered a $10 million reward for information leading to the killing or capture of Chechnya's top rebel leaders, and criticized the United States for its willingness to hold talks with Chechen separatists.

The announcements marked a show of resolve aimed at Russia's stunned citizens, as well as Western countries President Vladimir Putin accuses of hindering its fight against terror, in the wake of three attacks that killed more than 400 people in the past two weeks.

In a nationally televised meeting, Prosecutor-General Vladimir Ustinov also briefed Putin on the investigation into the taking of more than 1,200 hostages in a school last week in the southern town of Beslan.

His was the first official acknowledgment that the number of hostages had been so high; the government initially said about 350 people were seized. A regional official later said the number had been 1,181.

Col.-Gen. Yuri Baluyevsky, chief of the general staff of Russia's armed forces, asserted Russia's right to strike terrorists beyond its borders.

"As for carrying out preventive strikes against terrorist bases ... we will take all measures to liquidate terrorist bases in any region of the world," he told reporters.

Baluyevsky made his comments alongside NATO's supreme allied commander in Europe, Gen. James Jones, after talks on Russia-NATO military cooperation, including anti-terror efforts.

Cautious reactionsEuropean Union officials reacted cautiously to Baluyevsky's statements, with spokeswoman Emma Udwin saying she could not be sure whether they represented government policy. Udwin said the 25-nation EU is against "extra-judicial killings" in form of pre-emptive strikes.

Russian leaders have previously claimed the right to attack terrorists beyond the country's borders -- tacitly threatening neighboring Georgia that Moscow would pursue Chechen rebels allegedly sheltering on its territory. Two Russian agents were convicted this year for the February car bombing in Qatar that killed a Chechen rebel leader, Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev. Russia denied involvement in the assassination.

The Bush administration also has a policy of pre-emptive military action against terrorists.

NATO officials declined comment. The alliance released a statement with Russia stressing both sides' "determination to strengthen and intensify common efforts to fight the scourge of terrorism."

Nationalist lawmaker Dmitry Rogozin told Ekho Moskvy radio the warning appeared to be an effort to ease fears of terrorism in Russia following the crashes of two planes after explosions, a Moscow suicide bombing and the school seizure.

Anger over the school attack simmered in North Ossetia, the southern Russian region bordering Chechnya mourning the deaths of hundreds of children, parents and teachers.

Regional President Alexander Dzasokhov promised a furious crowd of 1,000 that the local government would step down within two days and said he would follow suit if he could not fulfill the protesters' demands for an independent inquiry -- the first sign of officials being punished for failing to prevent the attack.

Russia's Federal Security Service offered a reward of $10 million -- its biggest bounty ever -- for information that could help "neutralize" Chechen rebel leaders Shamil Basayev and Aslan Maskhadov, whom officials have accused of masterminding last week's hostage crisis.

The agency said Basayev and Maskhadov have been responsible for "inhuman terrorist acts on the territory of the Russian Federation."

Maskhadov, the former president of Chechnya, had denied any involvement in the school standoff, according to aides. There has been no word from Basayev, a longtime rebel warlord who had claimed involvement in bloody raids and hostage-takings in the past.

Basayev is believed to be hiding in Chechnya; Russian officials have sometimes reported that Maskhadov has left the country.

Ustinov said 326 hostages were killed and 727 wounded in the school attack, which ended Friday in a wave of explosions and gunfire. North Ossetian Deputy Health Minister Teimuraz Revazov later said 329 were confirmed dead.

Ustinov said 210 bodies had been identified, and forensic workers also were trying to identify 32 body fragments.

His deputy, Sergei Fridinsky, said the bodies of 12 attackers had been identified and that some had taken part in a deadly June attack in the neighboring republic of Ingushetia, the Interfax news agency reported.

The authorities appeared to be backpedaling from their previous insistence on describing the attack as the work of international terrorists. At a meeting with visiting Western journalists and analysts Monday, Putin repeated investigators' allegations that 10 of the attackers were of Arab descent and denied that the hostage-taking was linked to Russia's policy in Chechnya.

However, Ustinov said nothing about Arabs in his briefing. Asked about the silence, a Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told The Associated Press that forensic experts were working to identify the terrorists "and until that work is finished, it's impossible to tell."

"According to preliminary data, there were Arabs," he said. "No one is denying the presence of Arabs."

Fridinsky also appeared to contradict Putin by saying the attackers' demands were tied to the war in Chechnya.

"The demands concerned chiefly political motives and were related to the anti-terrorist operation," he said, according to Interfax, using the formulation Russian authorities use instead of war.

The global issue of terrorism drew Russia closer to the United States and other Western nations following the Sept. 11 attacks, when Putin expressed support for U.S. anti-terror efforts.

But since the attack in Beslan, Putin and other top officials have turned up the volume on their accusations that Western nations apply double standards and hinder Russia's fight against terrorism by questioning its policy in Chechnya.

Responding to a statement by State Department spokesman Richard Boucher, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Wednesday that "we solve our internal problems ourselves and there's no need to search for an American route to political normalization in Chechnya," Interfax reported.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Yakovenko also lashed out at the United States, saying talks with Chechens linked to rebel leaders are "absolutely unacceptable."

"After all, we are talking about those individuals who stand behind bloody attacks by terrorists in Russia, which have drawn the indignation of the entire civilized word," Yakovenko said in a statement.

While joining condemnation of the school attack, the State Department said Tuesday that Moscow ultimately must hold political talks with rebellious Chechen leaders.

Wednesday's TV broadcast of Ustinov's briefing was the first attempt by the government to give a formal account of the tragedy. The prosecutor said his information was based on interviews with witnesses and the one alleged attacker.

Ustinov said the approximately 30 attackers, including two women, had met in a forest early Sept. 1 before heading to School No. 1 in Beslan in a truck and two jeeps packed with weapons and ammunition.

People who had gathered to mark the first day of school were herded into the gym by the militants, some of whom voiced objections to seizing a school. Detainee Nur-Pashi Kulayev said the group's leader, who went by the name Colonel, shot one of the militants and said he would do the same to any other militants or hostages who did not show "unconditional obedience."

Later that day, he detonated the explosives worn by two female attackers, killing them to enforce the lesson, Ustinov said.

One of the militants was stationed with his foot on a button that would set off the explosives, Ustinov said; if he lifted his foot, the bombs strung up around the school gymnasium would detonate, he said.

On Friday, the militants decided to change the arrangement of the explosives, and they appear to have set off one bomb by mistake, Ustinov said. That sparked panic as hostages tried to flee and the attackers opened fire.

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