Moscow 'certain' that warlord ordered siege

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The Independent Online

Russia has claimed it knows "for certain" that the Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev was behind the Beslan school siege as new details of what happened suggest that the Kremlin has consistently misled the Russian people over the siege itself.

Russia has claimed it knows "for certain" that the Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev was behind the Beslan school siege as new details of what happened suggest that the Kremlin has consistently misled the Russian people over the siege itself.

Speaking to Arabic TV station al-Jazeera, Sergey Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, pointed the finger at Basayev and rebel Chechen president Aslan Maskahdov in his strongest comments on the subject so far: "I know for certain, that Shamil Basayev directly managed this operation."

Russia has offered a £6m bounty to anyone, including Chechen militants, who can provide information leading to both men's "neutralisation." Mr Lavrov also defended claims made by Russia's President Vladimir Putin that at least 10 of the 32 hostage-takers were "Arab fighters", despite the fact that the Kremlin has offered no concrete proof to back up this assertion.

"The information that there were Arabs has been confirmed," he said, "as has information that there were representatives of other nationalities among them. I understand that there were Russians, a Ukrainian, Chechens and Ingush."

Analysts have argued that Russia is keen to portray the hostage-takers as members of a pan-Arab terrorist internationale with close links to al-Qa'ida in order to give itself a freer hand to crush separatist rebels in Chechnya. But surviving hostages have consistently said they did not see or hear any Arabs, that all of the rebels spoke Russian among themselves and that they appeared to be overwhelmingly Chechen or Ingush.

Ingushetia is a Russian republic bordering both North Ossetia and Chechnya which has become dragged into the region's decade-long cycle of violence in recent months.

The Russian authorities have latterly been forced to own up to the poverty of their evidence, with themselves reporting that of 10 of the hostage-takers' bodies identified so far six are Chechens and four Ingush. A list of 13 of the hostage-takers' names published in the Russian media yesterday backed this up; all of the names were Chechen or Ingush.

Official claims that the hostage-takers' demands were vague and poorly formulated were also seriously undermined yesterday by claims in the media that a list of five specific demands were in fact put forward. According to the daily Moskovsky Komsomolets a letter spelling them out was passed to Ruslan Aushev, a former president of Ingushetia and the man who succeeded in getting 26 hostages released on the day before at least 330 people were killed.

The paper claims the hostage-takers demanded an end to the war in Chechnya, the withdrawal of Russian troops, for Chechnya to become an autonomous country within the CIS (the Commonwealth of Independent States, a loose confederation of post-Soviet countries), for Chechnya to remain in the rouble zone and for peacekeepers from the CIS to be stationed there. They were also thought to have been keen to secure the release of 26 rebel fighters held in a nearby prison. The letter was allegedly signed by "Basayev, Allah's slave".

The rebel fighter doing the negotiating on a mobile phone was, it seems, a "Slav" who called himself "Sheikhu". His concept of negotiations was one-sided. "We have not come to bargain but to get an agreement. Either we get what we want or we'll die here together with the children."

His last communication took place at six in the evening, some five hours after explosions and shooting had erupted. "You and your Kremlin are guilty for everything," he told his interlocutor before hanging up.

Further details also emerged yesterday of the sheer chaos that reigned last Friday with reports that local people desperate to get their loved ones out of the school allegedly tried to wrestle guns from the hands of the Russian Spetznaz and started shooting at the school when they heard an explosion inside. Other reports suggest that many of the Russian commandos who were killed were victims of friendly fire and were shot in the back by trigger-happy locals. Ten elite commandos were killed.

Russian media also claim that many of the hostages inside the school's gymnasium were killed in the cross-fire that followed and suggest - contrary to testimony from the surviving captives themselves - that the terrorists did not shoot at the children as they fled.

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