Russia offers huge reward in hunt for Chechen rebels

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The Independent Online

Russia's Federal Security Service today offered a reward of 300 million roubles ($10.3 million) for information that could help "neutralize" two Chechen rebel leaders, and a military official reasserted Russia's right to strike terrorists the world over.

Russia's Federal Security Service today offered a reward of 300 million roubles ($10.3 million) for information that could help "neutralize" two Chechen rebel leaders, and a military official reasserted Russia's right to strike terrorists the world over.

"As for carrying out preventive strikes against terrorist bases, we will take all measures to liquidate terrorist bases in any region of the world," Col.-Gen. Yuri Baluyevsky, chief of the Russian General Staff, told reporters.

Russian leaders have claimed such a right before - tacitly threatening neighboring Georgia that Moscow would pursue Chechen rebels allegedly sheltering on its territory - and two Russian agents were convicted earlier this year for the February car bombing in Qatar that killed a Chechen rebel leader, Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev. Russia has denied involvement in the assassination.

Television broadcast Wednesday footage of Prosecutor-General Vladimir Ustinov briefing Prosecutor-General Vladimir Ustinov briefed President Vladimir Putin on the investigation into the taking of more than 1,200 hostages in a school in southern Russia last week. His was the first official acknowledgment that the number of hostages had been so high; the government initially said about 350 people had been seized. A regional official later said the number had been 1,181.

The Federal Security Service, the main successor to the Soviet KGB, said rebel leaders Shamil Basayev and Aslan Maskhadov had been responsible for "inhuman terrorist acts on the territory of the Russian Federation." Russian officials have accused the two of masterminding last week's attack in the small city of Beslan in North Ossetia, a region bordering Chechnya.

While Russia has offered rewards before for information on the rebels' whereabouts, the reward offered Wednesday was by far the biggest yet.

Ustinov said 326 hostages were killed and 727 wounded in the attack, which ended Friday in a wave of explosions and gunfire. He said 210 bodies had been identified, and forensic workers also were trying to identify 32 body fragments. The death toll could rise, Ustinov said.

His deputy, Sergei Fridinsky, said 100 bodies had yet to be identified, the Interfax news agency reported. He also said that the bodies of 12 attackers had been identified, and that some had taken part in a June attack in the neighboring Russian republic of Ingushetia, which targeted police and killed 88 people.

The authorities appeared to be backpedaling from their previous insistence on describing the attack as the work of international terrorists. At a meeting with visiting Western journalists and analysts on Monday, Putin repeated investigators' allegations that 10 of the attackers were of Arab descent, and he denied that the hostage-taking was linked to Russia's policy in Chechnya.

However, Ustinov said nothing about Arabs in his briefing. Asked about the silence, a Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told The Associated Press that forensic experts were still working to identify the terrorists "and until that work is finished, it's impossible to tell."

"According to preliminary data, there were Arabs," he insisted. "No one is denying the presence of Arabs."

Fridinsky also contradicted Putin by saying the attackers' demands - which authorities did not reveal with any clarity during the crisis - were tied to the war in Chechnya.

"The demands concerned chiefly political motives and were related to the anti-terrorist operation," he said, according to Interfax, using the formulation Russian authorities use instead of war.

Various officials had previously leaked some details of the investigation, but Wednesday's TV broadcast of Ustinov's briefing was the first attempt by the government to give a formal account of the tragedy. The prosecutor said his information was based on interviews with witnesses and the one alleged attacker being held.

Ustinov said the approximately 30 attackers, including two women, had met in a forest early Sept. 1 before heading to School No. 1 in Beslan in a truck and two jeeps packed with weapons and ammunition.

People who had gathered to mark the first day of school were herded into the gym by the militants, some of whom voiced objections to seizing a school. Detainee Nur-Pashi Kulayev said the group's leader, who went by the name Colonel, shot one of the militants and said he would do the same to any other militants or hostages who did not show "unconditional obedience."

Later that day, he detonated the explosives worn by two female attackers, killing them, in order to enforce the lesson, Ustinov said.

One of the militants was stationed with his foot on a button that would set off the explosives, Ustinov said; if he lifted his foot, the bombs strung up around the school gymnasium would detonate, he said.

On Friday, the militants decided to change the arrangement of the explosives, and they appear to have set off one bomb by mistake, Ustinov said. That sparked panic as hostages tried to flee and the attackers opened fire.

On Tuesday night, Russians got a chilling glimpse of conditions inside the school when NTV television broadcast images that the station said were recorded by the assailants, presumably for an accounting to their leaders.

Hundreds of hostages were shown seated in the school's cramped gym. Many had their hands behind their heads. The wood floor was stained with blood.

Football-sized bundles of explosives were hanging from a basketball hoop. One attacker stood among the hostages with a boot on what NTV said was a book rigged with a detonator.

In the regional capital Vladikavkaz, more than 1,000 people gathered Wednesday for a rally to demand that North Ossetian officials resign over the handling of the siege. After about an hour of impassioned speeches, the crowd surged toward North Ossetian President Alexander Dzasokhov's office, shouting his name. A line of police with clubs blocked them.

"We've had enough words. It's time to act," said one rally speaker as the crowd held up signs, including one that read, "Russia - Strengthen Your Outposts."