MOSCOW – Chechen rebel leader Shamil Basayev (search) purportedly took responsibility Friday for a bloody school siege and other recent terrorist attacks that have killed more than 430 people, but put ultimate blame on Russian President Vladimir Putin (search).
In an e-mail posted Friday on the Kavkaz-Center Web site, Basayev defended the Sept. 1-3 school siege in Beslan, which ended with the deaths of about 338 people, including many children. It wasn't possible to confirm the letter's authenticity, though it was similar to previous ones believed posted by Basayev.
The letter, addressed to Putin, offered Basayev's own account about the raid, and even supported one of the Russian government's most controversial and disputed claims: that Arabs were among the hostage takers.
"A terrible tragedy occurred in the city of Beslan (search); the Kremlin vampire destroyed and wounded 1,000 children and adults, giving the ordering to storm the school for the sake of imperial ambitions and the preservation of his own throne," Basayev purportedly wrote.
The e-mail said there were 33 attackers including 10 Chechen men, two Chechen women, nine Ingush, three ethnic Russians, two Arabs, and five other Russian citizens from various ethnic groups. Russian authorities have said there were 32 attackers, all but one of whom had been killed. One was captured and is giving evidence.
He said he personally had trained the attackers for 10 days in a forest outside the village of Batako-Yurt, 12 miles outside Beslan. He denied any of the fighters had objected when they found out children would be among the hostages — contradicting Russian reports that one militant had killed another who protested.
Basayev said his brigade was responsible for an August explosion at a bus stop outside Moscow, the near-simultaneous bombings of two planes the same night, a suicide bombing outside a Moscow subway station a week later, and the school hostage-taking in Beslan.
More than 430 people were killed in the attacks.
The letter was signed by Basayev's nom de guerre, "Abdallakh Shamil, Emir of the Riyadus Salikhin Martyrs' Brigade." The site where it appeared is widely considered a mouthpiece for Basayev, and his previous claims of responsibility have appeared there.
Russian leaders said repeatedly that they had not planned to storm the school, where the attackers had rigged bombs surrounding about 1,200 hostages.
According to Russian officials and witnesses, emergency crews had gone in to collect the bodies of slain hostages when some of the bombs blew up accidentally and gunmen opened fire on hostages who tried to flee. Only then, they said, did special forces troops launch their assault.
Basayev rejected that claim. The letter said that the emergency crews were actually security service officers, and that the explosions rang out only after those workers had yelled "Run out!" to the hostages.
Basayev also tied the attacks directly to the Chechen war. Russia withdrew troops after a stalemate with Chechen rebels in 1997 and then returned under Putin in 1999.
"We regret what happened in Beslan. It's simply that the war, which 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.
He also denied Russian claims that he receives money from al-Qaida leader Osama Bin Laden, and said he had received only $10,000 from abroad this year. The weapons, truck and explosives had been stolen from Russian arsenals — or, as he put it sarcastically, "deducted from the Russian budget."
Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Yakovenko told reporters Friday that despite their claims, the Chechen rebels are "fed from abroad."
"We are convinced that this is part of the chain of international terrorist activity," Yakovenko said.
Almost immediately after the Beslan tragedy, Russia claimed Basayev and another Chechen rebel leader, Aslan Maskhadov, orchestrated the attack. Putin announced a $10 million reward for their arrest.
Basayev said his fighters had presented several demands to resolve the standoff, including the withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya and independence for the republic.
But Basayev clearly would have known Russia would never agree to the demands, which included Putin's resignation. Putin has ruled out any negotiations with Chechen rebels, insisting that the war-battered region is returning to normalcy under the Kremlin's twin programs of vesting increasing authority in elected Chechen officials and law enforcement services and reconstruction.
Basayev's letter said he sent his message to Putin through former Ingush President Ruslan Aushev — a respected regional figure who successfully negotiated freedom for 26 of the hostages — and North Ossetian President Alexander Dzasokhov.
The Federal Security Service's spokesman in Chechnya, Maj.-Gen. Ilya Shabalkin, said authorities had known "long ago" that Basayev was responsible for the series of attacks. The Beslan attack could have been planned only by a warlord of Basayev's rank because the group that carried it out was a "combined force from various bands," he was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency.
Shabalkin also said he was convinced that Maskhadov — who is considered outside Russia as more moderate than Basayev — knew in advance of the attacks, even if he wasn't directly involved. He said the two rebel leaders played "good cop, bad cop" — with Maskhadov distancing himself and Basayev frequently taking the blame.
Shabalkin also said that the security service had detained an Algerian mercenary, identified as Kamal Urakhli, who had served as an explosives expert in Basayev's group. Urakhli had lived in Great Britain for about 10 years, he said in remarks broadcast on Russian television.
Russian officials have berated Britain for giving refuge to Maskhadov emissary Akhmad Zakayev, saying they have given him a tribune to spread rebel propaganda. The Foreign Ministry summoned the British charge d'affaires, Steven Wordsworth, on Thursday to protest the "intensification of the anti-Russian actions" of Zakayev and another exile from Russia, Boris Berezovsky, the ITAR-Tass news agency reported.