Russia turns on Channel 4 for interview with warlord

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The Independent Online
A REQUEST from Russia for a television interview with the Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev, mastermind of the Beslan school siege, to be withheld from broadcast was rejected yesterday.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said the interview with Russia's most-wanted man, broadcast as part of Channel 4 News last night, had provoked an "extremely negative" reaction in official circles and accused Channel 4 of "supporting" terrorists.

Basayev, the separatist fighter who claimed responsibility for the Beslan school siege and the Moscow theatre siege, is regarded as beyond the pale in Russia and interviewing him, even through intermediaries, is viewed as aiding terrorism.

Russia has a $10m (pounds 6m) bounty on Basayev and the rebel Chechen president Aslan Maskhadov and the interview was regarded as especially sensitive since in it Basayev threatened more Beslan-type attacks and blamed the Russian authorities for the scale of the bloodshed when 330 hostages lost their lives last September.

The Foreign Ministry claimed it would be irresponsible to broadcast the interview since it would allow Basayev to get his "views and threats" out to a wide audience and said it ran contrary to international efforts to fight terrorism. Channel 4 News said it would go ahead with the broadcast.

It said in a statement: "We recognise, of course, that Shamil Basayev's views will be regarded worldwide as repugnant, but we reject utterly any notion that we are being irresponsible. It is simply not the case that the running of such material can be equated with condoning it. This has also been the case for many other instances where the views of those who advocate terrorism - including Osama bin Laden - have been carried by broadcast media." The item would make clear what kind of man Basayev was, it added.

The British Government is understood to have told the Russians that it was powerless to act and the broadcaster was not breaking any UK laws. Such reasoning is unlikely to be readily understood in Russia, however, where the government wields far more control over what is and is not broadcast.

The Government's rebuff will do little to improve relations damaged by the UK's decision to grant asylum to the Chechen rebel envoy Akhmed Zakayev and the oligarch Boris Berezovsky, an arch foe of the Kremlin. Russia has tried and failed to extradite the men.

The row erupted after Basayev and Maskhadov used a rebel website to declare a brief ceasefire for much of this month "as a gesture of goodwill."

Chechnya's Moscow-backed authorities dismissed the statement as cynical and meaningless propaganda and made clear they would never parlay with Basayev or Maskhadov. Basayev himself was rumoured, not for the first time, to have been killed last month.

In the TV interview Basayev said his original aim was to seize several schools in Moscow and St Petersburg, rather than Beslan, but he ran out of money. And with words that will send shivers down Russian spines, he described civilians as "accomplices of ... war", legitimate targets.

Cradling a six-barrelled grenade launcher, the militant said he was willing to go on trial for his actions one day though only in a sharia court and after hostilities were over.