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Chechen Rebel Leader More Hired Gun Than Islam Devotee

Boldly appearing as the only hostage-taker without a mask, rebel leader Movsar Barayev was known more for his brutal exploits as a gun-for-hire than any devotion to the Islamic cause. He was raised by a warlord uncle and his adolescence was forged by war.

Barayev led as many as 50 heavily armed men and women into a Moscow theater Wednesday to seize hundreds of hostages in the boldest attack since the long-simmering conflict in Chechnya began in 1994. He died during a bloody shootout with Russian elite troops Saturday morning.

In the only television pictures from inside the theater during the raid, taken early Friday by Russia's NTV, Barayev was wearing camouflage fatigues and loosely cradled a Kalashnikov rifle on his lap — his hands away from the trigger.

Barayev was born in 1979 in the city of Argun in Chechnya, where he grew up in a five-floor apartment building and was remembered by neighbors as quiet and gentle.

"He was a tender boy, and was a good student," Zara Satsieva, a neighbor of Barayev's in Argun, told NTV Friday from the rundown halls of the apartment house. "I can't say anything bad about him."

Whatever his childhood was like, Barayev's youthful innocence likely ended around the time he was 15 — when the first of Russia's two wars in Chechnya began.

His training as a fighter began four years ago when he moved to the town of Alkhan-Kala, where his uncle, Arbi Barayev, bought him a house. By Chechen tradition, boys often are entrusted to their uncles for upbringing.

The young Barayev soon led one of the most ruthless gangs of rebels known as the Islamic Regiment. He reportedly became one of the best fighters in the group, earning the distinction of being appointed one of Arbi Barayev's bodyguards.

His uncle's strategy included regular use of kidnappings for ransom — such as the 1998 abduction and beheading of three Britons and a New Zealander, who were working on Chechnya's phone network. The Barayev gang was linked to scores of other kidnappings, even including a Kremlin envoy.

Arbi Barayev was killed in June 2001 after an eight-day Russian operation in Alkhan-Kala, where federal forces say 17 other rebels also died. His body was displayed to TV cameras to prove the claim. The younger Barayev then is believed to have assumed leadership of the group.

In March, Barayev reportedly was involved in a fierce battle with Russian forces, telling a pro-rebel news agency he was attacked during a meeting of rebel commanders. The rebels killed at least 13 federal soldiers and five of his group were hurt, Barayev said.

Barayev next turned up in the videotape broadcast by Arabic satellite station Al-Jazeera that the station said was believed to have been taped Wednesday before the Chechens raided the theater.

"Each one of us is willing to sacrifice himself for the sake of God and the independence of Chechnya," one of the Chechens said, according to the station. "I swear by God that we are more keen on dying than you are on living."

Though the hostage-takers were waving the banner of Islam, appearing in front of a curtain printed with an Islamic expression, a Muslim leader who said he spoke numerous times to Barayev said the rebel had not been concerned much with religion but fought for money.

"Barayev was never a religious fanatic," said Dzhafar Zufarov, the mufti of the southern Russian region of Rostov near Chechnya. "He was a swindler, a bandit who made money from kidnapping people and from terrorist acts.

"He never read a single line from the Quran, and he doesn't understand the true meaning of jihad (holy war)," Zufarov said.

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

APTV 10-26-02 0849EDT