MOSCOW – The horrific school hostage seizure has caused a rift among Chechen rebels (search), Russian officials claimed Saturday. And in an effort to exploit that division, authorities said insurgents can get the $10 million reward offered for information about their top warlords.
The reward offer was announced earlier in the week for information about Chechen rebel leaders Shamil Basayev and Aslan Maskhadov. Federal Security Service Maj.-Gen. Ilya Shabalkin underlined on Saturday that rebels were eligible for the money.
Officials say Chechens were among the 11 attackers who have been identified, and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Friday the hostage-taking was directed by Basayev — the most notorious of the warlords leading Chechen rebels who have been fighting Russian forces for five years.
Lavrov said Maskhadov, Chechnya's president from 1996-99, was also connected with the hostage-taking.
The clarification about the reward by Shabalkin, a spokesman for the Russian forces' Chechnya operations, appeared to be aimed at exploiting reported dissension in the fighters' ranks over taking over the school in the Northern Ossetian city of Beslan (search).
After the hostage-taking ended Sept. 3 in a frenzy of shooting and explosions and the deaths of at least 330 people, news accounts cited former hostages as saying that some of the raiders argued with their leader once they found out their mission was to seize children as hostages.
Some accounts said the raiders' leader shot one of the dissidents and then detonated by remote control the suicide-bomber belts worn by two women raiders.
"Information coming from various channels to law-enforcement organs shows that after the commission of the terrorist act in Beslan there is a tense situation and atmosphere of conflict between the fighters," Shabalkin's office said in a statement.
The Federal Security Service "is prepared to cooperate with anybody, among them members of illegal armed formations without harming their personal security or restricting their right to the monetary reward," the statement said.
Russia previously had offered amnesty to rebels who laid down arms. It was not immediately clear if Shabalkin's statement about personal security meant that rebels could receive the reward without renouncing fighting.
Akhmed Zakayev, an envoy for the former Chechnya president Maskhadov, was quoted in the German magazine Der Spiegel on Saturday as saying both he and Maskhadov had offered to negotiate during the crisis and that Maskhadov's followers have no connection with the warlored Basayev.
"This act has caused greater damage (to the Chechen separatist cause) than 10 years of the darkest anti-Chechen propaganda," Zakayev was quoted as saying. The first Russian-Chechnya war started in 1994 and ended 20 months later with Russian forces withdrawing.
Also Saturday, the newspaper Gazeta reported that the leader of the band of hostage-takers was believed to be Ruslan Khuchbarov, from the neighboring region of Ingushetia. It said he was not among the dead.
But deputy prosecutor-general Vladimir Kolesnikov said the leader is among the dead, though he did not identify him. "He has received what he deserved and is in a refrigerator now," Kolesnikov was quoted by news agencies as saying.
Inquiries were growing about scores of people missing after the hostage-taking's chaotic end. Reports say more than 100 of the estimated 1,200 hostages have not been accounted for.
The state television channel Rossiya has established a Web site to which relatives seeking information on missing people can send photographs and contact information. As of Saturday morning, those being sought via the site had grown to 69.
On Saturday, the Interfax news agency cited the Russian health ministry as saying 353 people wounded in the hostage-taking remained hospitalized, including 216 children.