MOSCOW – Russian lawmakers turned up the pressure on Denmark on Saturday, demonstrating outside the country's embassy to warn the small Scandinavian nation that Moscow will not drop its demand for the extradition of a detained Chechen rebel envoy.
Akhmed Zakayev, a top aide to Chechen separatist leader Aslan Maskhadov, was arrested Wednesday in Denmark at Russia's request on suspicion of helping plan terrorist activities, including last month's 58-hour seizure of a packed Moscow theater which resulted in the deaths of 119 hostages.
The Danish justice minister told Russia on Friday that Copenhagen needed more evidence to extradite Zakayev, a familiar face in Western capitals where he pressed for recognition of Chechnya's independence from Russia. A spokesman for Russia's Prosecutor General's Office said Saturday that more material was being prepared.
"We won't leave it alone," said Dmitry Rogozin, the chairman of the International Affairs Committee of the lower house of the Russian parliament, according to Interfax news agency. He warned that Russian-Danish relations will suffer greatly "unless Copenhagen satisfies Russia's request for the extradition."
"If Denmark adheres to its deaf-and-dumb position, we will take tough steps," he was quoted as saying, without specifying what those steps would be.
Across town, lawmaker Arkady Baskhayev led about 50 demonstrators in a protest outside the Danish Embassy, warning that only Zakayev's "prompt extradition ... will promote normal relations."
Denmark has found itself at the center of Moscow's tough new diplomatic push to discredit and isolate Chechnya's rebel leaders. Copenhagen refused to back down to the Kremlin's demands that a Chechen conference in the Danish capital be canceled after the Oct. 23 hostage-taking, which ended when Russian special forces stormed the theater at dawn last Saturday. While the conference went ahead without problems, Zakayev was arrested after it ended.
Danish police said they had received sufficient proof from Russia that he was a suspect in a series of terror attacks between 1996-1999 and was believed to have taken part in the planning of the Moscow attack.
The Kremlin also insisted it has evidence that Maskhadov was behind the theater's seizure, although Chechnya's leading rebel, Shamil Basayev, on Friday claimed sole responsibility and insisted that he had not informed Maskhadov before the hostage-taking.
The authenticity of Basayev's statement, made on a Chechen Web site, could not be confirmed. Maskhadov has denied any connection to the theater's seizure.
Russia has long sought to link Chechnya's rebel leaders to international terrorism, but the Kremlin faced obstacles from the West which insists on a political settlement in Chechnya and saw Maskhadov as the best negotiating partner. But since rebels seized the Moscow theater, the Kremlin has redoubled its efforts -- and appears to be making progress.
The State Department discussed the possibility Friday of listing Chechen groups as foreign terrorist organizations, a step that would make it a crime to contribute to them. Russian Foreign Ministry's spokesman Alexander Yakovenko said Saturday that such a move would "reinforce the Russian-American partnership but also prove the effectiveness of the international anti-terrorist coalition."
Meanwhile, Rogozin was quoted as telling Interfax that "Chechnya has turned into a broader issue related to international terrorism."
One week after Russian forces stormed the Moscow theater ending the hostage crisis, some 151 former hostages remain hospitalized, including four children, Moscow health authorities said, according to Interfax news agency. Seven adults are listed in serious condition, Interfax said. Some 499 former hostages have been discharged from hospitals.
Most of the injured hostages and 117 of those killed were felled by the fentanyl-based gas that Russian troops used to incapacitate the terrorists before entering the building. Two were shot by the heavily-armed Chechen gunmen, who had also threatened to blow up the theater if their demands that Russian troops withdraw from Chechnya were not met.