On February 3, the Kavkazcenter website reported that Chechen separatist leader Aslan Maskhadov had ordered rebel fighters to lay down their weapons for one month. It also published a statement from warlord Shamil Basaev ordering fighters to obey Maskhadov’s decree and halt all offensive military actions until February 22. Later that day, however, Britain’s Channel 4 television aired an earlier-recorded interview with Basaev, in which he warned that he and his forces “are planning Beslan-type operations in the future.”
Kavkazcenter quoted an aide to Basaev as saying that Maskhadov had called the unilateral ceasefire order, which he signed on January 14, an “expression of goodwill.” The website said it did not have the text of Maskhadov’s decree, but it published the text of Basaev’s order to rebel units to obey Maskhadov’s ceasefire. Along with various Koranic citations, Basaev ordered all “mujahideen” on Chechen and Russian territory to halt all forms of military actions, including “assaults on and shelling of posts of occupation forces and their puppet structures,” “blowing up and attacking enemy columns” and vehicles, and attacks on “kafirs and hypocrites” in population centers or on roads. The order stated that rebel fighter were permitted to mine approaches to their bases and to attack enemy forces or hardware involved in reconnaissance or military operations in the wooded mountainous areas of Chechnya.
Kavkazcenter also quoted Umar Khanbiev, the main overseas representative for the separatist Chechen Republic of Ichkeria (ChRI), as saying that Maskhadov’s January 14 ceasefire order was “a demonstration of goodwill and an invitation to the Russian side to end the war at the political negotiating table.” Khanbiev added: “With this step, the ChRI president told the world that the ChRI’s armed forces are not uncoordinated groups, as they want to portray us in Moscow, but are subordinated to the Commander-in-Chief and controlled by him . . . Only the strong side is able to take such a step. We are hoping that the Russian side will have the political will to take an appropriate step, in order to put an end to this long and bloody war” (Kavkazcenter.com, February 3).
Akhmed Zakaev, Maskhadov’s London-based representative, also commented on the cease-fire order. “All the forces of the Chechen resistance are interested in an end to the war,” he said. “This has been demonstrated by all the resistance forces, including its radical wing — Basaev.” Like Khanbiev, Zakaev said Maskhadov’s order showed that the resistance forces are not uncoordinated groups, but are subordinated to Maskhadov. Zakaev also called for “dialogue” to end the war (Kavkazcenter.com, February 3).
Not surprisingly, pro-Moscow Chechen and Russian officials have dismissed Maskhadov’s initiative out of hand. Chechen President Alu Alkhanov called it a “propaganda trick” (Itar-Tass, February 3). Likewise, Chechen State Council Chairman Taus Dzhabrailov said it was nothing more than a bluff, a provocation, and a desire to attract attention. Dzhabrailov added that it was possible the rebels were trying to give the impression that they have a unified command, when, in his view, “Maskhadov can only give orders to himself personally; Basaev — to his entourage, guards, and the small group he heads” (Interfax, February 3). Dmitry Kozak, President Putin’s envoy to the Southern Federal District, seemed to be following the same talking points, calling Maskhadov’s unilateral ceasefire order “nothing other than an attempt by the separatists to attract publicity.” The separatists “have taken these steps many times before,” he said, adding: “Aslan Maskhadov has never been really in control of the situation, even when he was in Grozny” (Itar-Tass, February 3).
Meanwhile, Britain’s Channel 4 ran an interview with Shamil Basaev on the evening of February 3. According to the channel’s website, four months ago it sent Basaev a list of questions through an intermediary in an unnamed European capital. Within the past week, three video CDs containing Basaev’s answers to the questions were delivered to an unnamed Middle Eastern city (chanel4.com).
In the interview, the Chechen rebel warlord reiterated what he said in an e-mail interview with Mark MacKinnon, Moscow bureau chief for the Globe and Mail newspaper, last November — that he was in a state of “shock” over the outcome of the September 2004 Beslan school massacre, but that the Russians were responsible for the siege’s bloody denouement. Basaev told Channel 4 that he originally planned to seize one or possibly two schools simultaneously in either Moscow or St. Petersburg, but that limited funds forced him to target North Ossetia, a “Russian garrison in the North Caucasus” that contributed to Chechnya’s misery with the “silent consent of [the North Ossetian] population.” Basaev said his aim had been to offer the Russian leadership no chance of achieving a “bloodless resolution” to the hostage-taking and thus force it to stop the “genocide of the Chechen people,” but that he had been “cruelly mistaken” in thinking Moscow would never be willing to preside over the death of children.
Basaev said Maskhadov had accused him of going too far with the Beslan raid, and that he had told Maskhadov he was “ready to stand before a sharia court and answer to it in all its severity if it judges [that] I should be punished.” Basaev added, however, that such a trial is only possible after the war ends. Basaev also said he is willing to call a ceasefire and open negotiations with the Russians, but only after the complete withdrawal of Russian forces from Chechnya.
At the same time, Basaev declared: “We are planning Beslan-type operations in the future because we are forced to do so. Today our citizens are disappearing. Our girls disappear without a trace. They can take anyone. In order to stop this chaos we have to respond in the same way. Cynical though it may seem, we are planning these operations, and we will conduct them, if only to show the world again and again the true face of the Russian regime, the true face of Putin with his Satanic horns, so that the world sees his true face. In order to stop the genocide we will stop at nothing.” Justifying attacks on civilians, Basaev argued that people who “who approve of Putin’s policies,” who “pay their taxes for this war,” who “send their soldiers to this war, priests who sprinkle holy water on them,” cannot be seen as innocent.
Basaev ended the interview with comments reminiscent of those made by some of the more extreme Islamic fundamentalist preachers. “This is a war between the descendants of monkeys, about whom your Darwin wrote, and the descendants of Adam, glory be to Allah,” he said. “This is the war of the descendants of Adam and Eve to put the animals in their place. I commit this to the great God and those who have taken the path to jihad, the direct path to God. Allah-hu akbar.”
Before the interview with Basaev was broadcast, Russia’s Foreign Ministry expressed outrage and condemned Channel 4’s decision, calling Basaev a “notorious terrorist and murderer” and noting that Russia’s embassy in London had demanded the British authorities not air it. The channel, for its part, said it recognized that Basaev’s views “will be regarded worldwide as repugnant” but “utterly rejected” any notion it was acting irresponsibly. “It is simply not the case that the running of such material can be equated with condoning it,” Channel 4 said in a statement. “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 piece on Channel 4 News tonight will make very clear what kind of man is Shamil Basaev and will set in very clear context his attempted rationale for the killing of children” (Channel4.com, The Times [UK], February 3).