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Russia sets reward for killers

Nation threatens pre-emptive strikes on terrorists abroad

Published: Thursday, Sept. 9 2004 10:49 a.m. MDT

Azamat Mukagov, 20 months old, a victim of the massacre in Beslan, recovers in a children's hospital in Moscow.

Associated Press

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MOSCOW — The Russian government offered a $10 million reward Wednesday for the killing or capture of two Chechen rebel leaders, and a top general said Moscow reserved the right to make pre-emptive strikes against terrorists abroad.

In an emerging reaction that echoed statements in Washington after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, several lawmakers also proposed steps to tighten domestic security in response to last week's horrific schoolhouse siege in North Ossetia, in which more than 300 children, parents, teachers and attackers were killed.

In a new official account of the attack, Russia's chief law enforcement official portrayed a band of cutthroat kidnappers who argued among themselves and whose leader enforced discipline by executing three of his crew.

In a televised meeting with President Vladimir V. Putin, the official, Prosecutor General Vladimir Ustinov, reported that not all the attackers realized that their mission was to seize a school and that one of them was shot when he objected to kidnapping children.

Two women in the gang were killed, as a gesture of intimidation, when the bombs strapped to their bodies were detonated by remote control, Ustinov said.

"He did it himself?" Putin asked, referring to the gang leader, who went by the nickname Colonel and who was described as a short man with a red beard and freckles.

"Yes, himself," Ustinov replied, almost in a whisper.

Although the broad outlines of the assault are believed to be known, many details remain uncertain. Parts of Ustinov's account on Wednesday, which apparently relied to some extent on information from the sole hostage-taker captured alive, differed from the recollections of survivors or witnesses in minor ways.

Ustinov said 326 hostages were killed, although only 210 bodies have been identified because many were badly mutilated. This total was lower than the earlier official toll of 338. He said another 727 people had been wounded, leaving only a very few hostages unhurt from a total of 1,200 he said had been held.

The attack on the school in Beslan, in southern Russia, was the latest and most disturbing of a series of terror attacks that are apparently linked to the decade-long separatist war in Chechnya.

Col. Gen. Yuri Baluyevsky, the chief of the military's general staff, said Russia did not feel bound by national borders in pursuing rebels.

"As for carrying out preventive strikes against terrorist bases, we will take all measures to liquidate terrorist bases in any region of the world," he said, though he called that an "extreme measure."

In fact, the post-Soviet military has lost much of its ability to project force beyond its borders. Its concern is with rebels from Chechnya and the North Caucasus crossing into neighboring Georgia, where Russia has two bases and has carried out military operations.

Aslanbek Aslakhanov, Putin's chief adviser on Chechnya, said he hoped the large reward would lead to the capture of the two most prominent rebel figures, Aslan Maskhadov, a former president of Chechnya, and Shamil Basayev, a warlord. The government has blamed them for the hostage taking, although Basayev has denied involvement.

Ustinov's deputy, Sergei Fridinsky, said the bodies of 12 attackers, out of approximately 30, had been identified. He said some had taken part in an attack in June in Ingushetia, a neighboring republic, where scores of people were killed.

Russian lawmakers and officials have raised questions about how rebels seem to be able to move freely around the country. Some officials have proposed measures to restrict living permits and travel conditions and to allow airport security officers to deny boarding to any passenger about whom they have doubts.

The mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, has suggested that Chechens should be restricted in their access to the capital.

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