NALCHIK, Russia – A prominent Chechen warlord claimed he was behind last week's militant attacks in the southern Russian city of Nalchik that officials say left at least 139 people dead, according to a statement posted on a rebel-connected Web site Monday.
Previous statements on the Kavkaz Center Web site (search) said the attacks were carried out by militants affiliated with the Chechen rebels, but Monday's statement was the first claim of a direct connection to Shamil Basayev (search).
"I carried out the general operative management," Basayev said, according to the posting. There was no way to verify the statement's authenticity.
In the posting, Basayev claimed the attacks on police and government buildings in Nalchik, the capital of the Kabardino-Balkariya (search) republic, were launched by fighters of the republic's section of the so-called Caucasus Front, which is believed to include militant cells throughout the restive Caucasus region.
Basayev was quoted as saying that the leader of the front in Kabardino-Balkariya is "busy preparing other work that I have assigned him."
In the statement, Basayev claimed 41 militants and about 140 Russian security forces were killed in the fighting and that three Russian helicopters were destroyed. Official Russian accounts say 94 militants, 33 security forces and 12 civilians were killed; there have been no reports of damaged helicopters.
The region of Kabardino-Balkariya has long been affected by spillover violence from nearby Chechnya, as well as by local criminals. Earlier this year, police in Nalchik twice launched assaults on alleged Islamic militants holed up in apartments.
Some Muslims accuse law enforcement authorities of persecuting innocent believers who worship outside the officially sanctioned mosques, falsely branding them as militants and planting compromising evidence such as drugs or weapons to ensure their prosecution.
Arsen Kanokov, who became president of Kabardino-Balkariya about three weeks ago, has shown inclinations to back off the pressure on the republic's Muslims.
"I believe it is wrong to close down mosques and herd people into one place," the newspaper Kommersant quoted him as saying in an interview published Monday. "Nothing will be achieved from attempts to prevent people from praying."
Basayev, in the Kavkaz Center statement, said the militants had not targeted Kanokov "because he has ordered that mosques be reopened and this in fact saved his life."