By Burt Herman ~ The Associated Press
MOSCOW -- He is Russia's homegrown 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's 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 in 1999, has been helped by the vast sympathy he enjoys 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, who have repeatedly failed to prevent terror attacks.
A letter attributed to Basayev and posted on a Web site affiliated with Chechen rebels, has claimed responsibility for a recent terror wave that in two weeks saw the taking of more than 1,200 hostages at the school, blowing two planes out of the sky with near simultaneous explosions, and a suicide bombing at a Moscow subway station.
There was no way to confirm the note's authenticity. Basayev alleged Russian forces had provoked the bloody end to the school siege in Beslan by storming the building. More than 330 people died -- nearly half of them children. The plane explosions killed 90 people; the metro attack killed nine plus the bomber.
"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," he wrote in the letter.
Basayev, born in Vedeno in southern Chechnya, 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 some 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.
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 who long ago identified the undercover vehicles used by Russian agents.
Sergei Markov, an analyst with close ties to the Kremlin, lamented that the post-Soviet shake-up in Russia has reduced the formerly omnipotent KGB to a shadow of its former self, robbing the intelligence agency of the ability to infiltrate militant circles.
"In these conditions, the revival of the main instrument in the war on terrorism -- a network of agents -- is proceeding with great difficulty," he said. "How do you find agents among various ethnic groups? They have known each other since childhood, from the clans and the courtyards."
Russian intelligence agencies have repeatedly shown ineptitude, said Anatol Lieven, a senior associate at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and author of "Chechnya: Tombstone of Russian Power."
"If you want to know why (Russian authorities) haven't captured Basayev yet, you only have to look at the incompetence with which they handled the siege" at the Moscow theater and Beslan, he said.
Intelligence failures have typified the Chechen wars, where thousands of Russian soldiers have lost their lives. "There's no mystery about this, the whole Russian state is in shambles," he said.
Lieven 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.
Liberal Russian political figures have claimed the Russian government itself lacks the will to capture Basayev, keeping him around as a useful foil to justify continued fighting in Chechnya.
But Lieven dismissed such talk as unfounded and said such rumors were similar to those suggesting President Bush's administration was involved in the Sept. 11 attacks.
"You can oppose these conflicts without yielding to irrational conspiracy theories," he said.
Echoing U.S. authorities who play down the fact that bin Laden remains at-large more than three years after the attacks on New York and Washington, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov sought to diminish the significance of what Basayev's capture would mean in stopping future terror attacks in Russia.
He alleged international terrorism would still be the driving force behind the violence.
"The fact that he took full responsibility of course does not mean that by liquidating the problem that exists in connection with Basayev, all the rest will disappear," Lavrov said.