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ARKIB : 01/11/2004

Chechen warlord pledges more attacks on civilians

MOSCOW Oct 31 - The rebel warlord who masterminded last month's Beslan school siege says Chechen attacks on civilians will go on as long as Russian troops abuse human rights in the separatist region of Chechnya.

Shamil Basayev, who has a multi-million dollar bounty on his head, said in the interview published on Sunday that capturing rebel leaders such as him would not help Russia to victory since Chechen rebels operated in small independent groups.

Basayev has ordered the most audacious attacks on Russia in the 10 years of the Chechen war. His fighters held the school in Beslan with 1,200 hostages for more than two days in early September before Russian security forces stormed the building.

More than 330 hostages died, about half of them children.

He was a key commander in defending Chechnya when Vladimir Putin, who was then prime minister and is now president, sent troops back into Chechnya in 1999, but his willingness to attack civilians has split his forces from those of nominal rebel head Aslan Maskhadov.

``If Putin begins to abide by international law, then automatically we will do so,'' he said in comments carried on rebel Web sites.

``We are ready to abide by international law, this would even suit us by protecting civilians. But unlike President Maskhadov, we do not want to fight in such a way unilaterally.''

Troops die daily in clashes with rebel forces. Activists accuse Russian forces of massive rights abuses in kidnapping and murdering Chechens suspected of links to the rebels. Russia denies this.

A manhunt for the top leaders has so far been fruitless, and Basayev said his capture would not halt the war anyway.

``Our warriors are self-sufficient, they fight independently, no one needs to teach them anything,'' he said.

``I just need to send letters and my personal participation is not needed, it is enough to meet once or twice a year. In 2003 I was in Chechnya for only two weeks, and most warriors did not notice. This autonomy is I think our greatest success.''

He spent some time in another Caucasus region but it was not clear where he spent the rest of 2003.

Russia has promised a $10 million reward for anyone who helps capture Basayev and Aslan Maskhadov, the nominal leader of the Chechen resistance who was also blamed by Russia for the Beslan attack.

Basayev said Maskhadov had no role in planning the attack.

``I met Maskhadov at the end of June, I gave him captured weapons and material, I wanted to find a common approach to the methods of fighting the war but did not manage to.''

And, he said, the traditional hospitality of the Caucasus meant the rebel leaders would always be protected from Russian capture even in the houses of their enemies.

``The people strongly supports us, not only in Chechnya but all across the Caucasus ... I can, at a difficult time, get help and be received in almost any house,'' he said.

``I have never doubted that I can stay somewhere.'' - Reuters

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