Beslan mastermind thumbs his nose at Russia

He is Russia’s most wanted man, with tens of thousands of soldiers on his trail, but a year after masterminding the Beslan massacre, Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev remains at large, openly mocking the Kremlin.

The failure to catch Basayev is a major embarrassment for Russia’s security forces stationed in tiny Chechnya — especially given allegations of collusion.

The bearded guerrilla leader has become legendary for his ability to escape the net, despite multiple wounds, including the loss of his right lower leg on a landmine five years ago, and a $10-million bounty on his head.

Military analysts describe Basayev (40) as a brilliant commander, fearless and ruthless — even psychopathic — in his decade-old war against the Russian state.

That has earned him cult status among the radicalised wing of Chechen rebels and in the worldwide Islamic jihad movement, from which he is believed to receive some of his funding.

”He is afraid of nothing and will join in operations. He can appear anywhere,” a Russian special services officer in the North Caucasus region said on condition of anonymity.

However, what is most humiliating for Moscow is evidence that a widespread network of corrupt Russian officials regularly helps Basayev swap the caves and forests of the Caucasus mountains for comfortable safe houses in Chechnya and far beyond.

”He doesn’t have to run around the mountains,” said Taus Dzhabrailov, a top official in the Kremlin-installed Chechen government. ”He is driven around comfortably in jeeps. He just pays.”

The special services officer said that in 2003 Basayev spent two months resting in the province of Kabardino-Balkaria — about 200km and several internal Russian borders from his mountain stronghold in Chechnya’s Vedeno region.

”He was driven there by the police,” the source said.

When a tip-off led a small unit of special forces to Basayev’s house, the most-wanted man himself fired a hail of gunfire and fled with his men.

”They escaped, ran off, then were picked up by police and driven away,” the source said.

The security forces again became a laughing stock this summer, when Russian journalist Andrei Babitsky filmed an interview with Basayev shown five weeks ago on the United States television network ABC.

The meeting was remarkable for its simplicity: Basayev was waiting for the reporter in a car on an ordinary road by a village outside Chechnya.

In that interview, Basayev reiterated threats of new Beslan-style terrorist attacks should Russia fail to stop what he called ”genocide” in Chechnya.

Basayev, who lost 11 relatives in a Russian air attack on Vedeno in 1995, mocked his pursuers, saying: ”Don’t tell me they’re trying to find me. I’m trying to find them.”

Chechens have mixed emotions about their most infamous son.

He is held responsible for provoking Russia into restarting the war in 1999 after a three-year break. And he is widely reviled for allying himself with foreign Islamic radicals — volunteers who came to fight a jihad, then alienated the mostly Sufi Chechens by preaching fundamentalist Islam.

But for a population sick of living in fear of the Russian military, Basayev is also seen as a figure able to give the soldiers a taste of their own medicine.

”If the Russians left tomorrow, no one would want Basayev to be leader,” said Timur, a resident of the destroyed capital, Grozny, asking that his last name not be used. ”But they think that during war, it takes evil to stand up against evil.”

”A lot of people are glad that the Russians have got the Basayev problem,” said Zoya, a young woman in the city, also asking to remain anonymous.

Meanwhile, hundreds of Beslan residents have signed a petition requesting political asylum abroad in an apparently symbolic public rebuke of the government they blame for mishandling last year’s school hostage crisis.

”We, the parents and relatives of the victims of the terrorist act of September 3 at School No 1 in Beslan, have lost all hope for a just investigation of the reasons and the guilty parties in our tragedy, and we do not wish to live anymore in this country, where a human life means nothing,” read the petition, a copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press on Thursday.

Many families of the victims of the hostage-taking blame the authorities for allowing a group of heavily armed attackers to seize the school and accuse them of bungling the rescue operation and conducting a cover-up rather than an objective investigation.

The petition, which requests refuge ”in any country where human rights are respected”, appeared to bear the signatures of more than 400 people. — Sapa-AP, Sapa-AFP

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Sebastian Smith
Sebastian Smith
AFP White House correspondent. Previously Rio, NYC, Moscow, Tbilisi, London, Paris -- and a couple years at sea.

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