An interview with Shamil Basaev, the Chechen rebel field commander whose death has been proclaimed by some Russian officials and doubted by others, was published last week by the Prima news agency. In the interview, which Basaev gave to Aleksandr Podrabinek, the veteran human rights activist and journalist who is now Prima’s editor, the rebel leader said the first claim that he had been killed, made late last month by General Anatoly Kvashnin, chief of the Russian armed forces’ general staff, had aroused little more than “mild laughter and bitter irony” among him and his comrades. If the Russian military has “such an obtuse, such a worthless leadership, then I simply feel sorry for Russia, which is spending incalculable riches and uncountable human resources here,” Basaev said. The rebel commander claimed he was having no problems manning his unit but was experiencing shortages of ammunition. He also claimed that the separatist forces are well prepared for a protracted conflict, have no intention of giving up and would soon come down out of the mountains to take the republic back under their control.
“We have sent many fighters into the lowlands, the villages, with the task of setting up a base, a platform, for carrying out a guerrilla war,” Basaev said. The war, he added, is now continuing “on its own momentum.” “Practically nothing special is demanded either from me or from any other leader, because the mujahideen know what to do,” he said. The rebel forces, he continued, have chosen the tactic of the “bee”–which, he added, is “the tactic of our ancestors”–consisting of a countless and endless series of “small stings,” the ultimate goal being total victory. “For this, decades will be required, but we are ready for that,” Basaev declared. As for the tactics of the other side, Basaev stated that the Russian forces now wanted to draw the rebels into open battles “because at the current moment an open confrontation is to the advantage of the Russian side and not to our advantage. When it will be to our advantage, have no doubt that we will come out into the open and switch to the tactic of positional warfare” with the goal of establishing control over the republic (Prima-News, May 24).
Podrabinek refused to say whether he conducted his interview with Basaev in person or by telephone, stating only that his conversation with the rebel leader lasted half an hour. Kommersant noted that a conversation of that length by satellite telephone would have permitted the Russian forces to locate Basaev and attack him, as occurred with Djohar Dudaev, and thus speculated that Basaev may have placed the call from Georgia or Azerbaijan (Kommersant, May 25). Whatever the case, the interview’s appearance naturally raised further doubts over the claim, first made by Kvashnin and then repeated several times by Gennady Troshev, commander of the North Caucasus Military District, that Basaev had been killed. Just last week, Troshev said he was “completely sure” Basaev was dead, claiming that a captured member of the warlord’s unit had given evidence that Basaev had died from a nearly direct hit by an artillery shell. Various other top officials, including General Vladimir Moltenskoi, commander of the federal forces in Chechnya, and Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, have said they doubted Basaev was killed (see the Monitor, May 23).
Moltenskoi repeated this again yesterday, saying that Basaev was probably alive and, as before, located in Chechnya’s Vedeno district. He reported that Basaev’s personal archives had been found in a hiding place discovered in the village of Dyshne-Vedeno, Basaev’s birthplace, and that it was unlikely the rebel leader would have left the republic without it. At the same time, Moltenskoi did confirm Kvashnin’s assertion last month that Basaev had not been heard over rebel communications for a long time. Still, Basaev’s body has not been found, Moltenskoi said, adding that he therefore could not “speak of Basaev’s destruction as assuredly as I have spoken about [the deaths of] Arbi Baraev, Abu-Omar, Abu Yakub and other rebel leaders” (RTR-vesti.ru, May 27).
Meanwhile, Akhmed Zakaev, the personal emissary of Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov, declared in an interview published yesterday that Basaev was indeed alive, and that Maskhadov had asserted it as well. Zakaev confirmed the death of another warlord, Khattab, but denied that the Saudi-born warlord had been killed by the Russian special services. Zakaev denied reports that the special services had assassinated Khattab last March using a poisoned letter, saying that Khattab simply did not wake up one morning (Novaya Gazeta, May 27).
“NEAR ABROAD,” R.I.P.