The airing by ABC News’ “Nightline” of excerpts of journalist Andrei Babitsky’s interview with Chechen rebel warlord Shamil Basaev caused an uproar in Russia that has yet to subside. In the excerpts, which “Nightline” broadcast on July 28, Basaev refused to take responsibility for the death of more than 150 children at Beslan’s School No. 1 in September 2004. Asked by Babitsky whether he felt responsibility for their deaths, “perhaps sharing this responsibility with Putin,” Basaev responded: “Why should I share it with Putin? Officially, over 40,000 of our children have been killed and tens of thousands mutilated. Is anyone saying anything about that?” Pressed by Babitsky about whether he really held the Beslan children responsible for that, Basaev continued: “It’s not the children who are responsible. Responsibility is with the whole Russian nation, which with silent approval gives a yes. A nation that feeds their grasses who ravaged Chechnya. They collect food…for them, they supply them. They pay taxes. They give approval in word and in deed. They are all responsible. And in Beslan, to be honest, I didn’t expect this. But in Beslan, the issue was either stop the war in Chechnya or have Putin resign. Just one of those two things. Carry out one, and all people are released, no questions asked.”
A short time later, Basaev claimed he was “shocked” by what happened at Beslan. “I never thought Putin was so blood-thirsty that he would manifest his thirst for blood. I didn’t think he would. When confronted with a more serious situation, I thought they’d try to make some move like gas or something. That at least they wouldn’t do anything against children. That was my thinking. I figured that the more brutal I could make it, the quicker they’d get the message. I thought it would work. But it’s not sinking in yet.” Basaev’s rationalization for Beslan was virtually the same as the one he gave in an interview with Britain’s Channel 4 television in February. This time, however, Basaev also claimed he thought there would be no children younger than six in the school and that he had told the “commander” in charge of the hostage seizure to hand Russian officials “our demands officially and then release all under 10 years old, no questions asked.”
Babitsky reported that Basaev told him the explosion inside the school that started the storming of the building occurred when a Russian sniper shot the hostage-taker who was holding his foot down on the detonator of an explosive device. This echoes the testimony of Nur-Pashi Kulaev, the sole participant in the Beslan school seizure to be taken alive, who is currently being tried by North Ossetia’s Supreme Court.
Basaev also sought to deny responsibility for the downing of two Russian civilian airliners in August of 2004, telling Babitsky: “Who said they’d been blown up?…Why doesn’t it occur to you that they shot them down? The demands were exactly the same, to stop the war. Why blame us?…They were supposed to hijack the planes and demand an end to the war. And they were not supposed to let them land until there was some response. But they were immediately shot down. Whatever, our hijackers weren’t supposed to blow up the planes just like that. And I wonder why both planes exploded at the same time.” This seems to differ from what Basaev told Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper in an e-mail interview published last November, in which he said that his forces would have agreed to abide by international law had President Vladimir Putin agreed to do so and “then there would have been neither Beslan nor the explosions of the planes and [Moscow] metro” (see Chechnya Weekly, November 10, 2004).
Asked by Babitsky about the main motivation for his ongoing campaign, Basaev denied that it was religious. “For me, it’s first and foremost a struggle for freedom,” he said. “If I’m not a free man, I can’t live in my faith. I need to be a free man. Freedom is primary. That’s how I see [it]. Sharia comes second.” But he also said: “I admit, I’m a bad guy. A bandit, a terrorist. So, I’m a terrorist.” He added, however, referring to the Russians: “But what would you call them?”
Babitsky said during the “Nightline” program that he had traveled by car from Prague to the Ingushetian village of Nesterovsky to interview Doku Umarov, the Chechen separatist vice-president and field commander. The interview with Umarov was conducted in June (see Chechnya Weekly, July 20). Babitsky said he changed cars in Nesterovsky: “As I got into the other car, much to my surprise – actually, more than just surprise, it was a difficult moment for me, a shock. I saw Shamil Basaev seated in it.” On August 1, the head of the Ingushetian Interior Ministry’s press service, Murat Zurabov, denied that Basaev had been in the republic, RIA Novosti reported.