Chechen leader claims credit for theater takeover

Published: Saturday, Nov. 2 2002 12:00 a.m. MST

MOSCOW — Chechnya's leading rebel warlord claimed responsibility Friday for the hostage siege at a Moscow theater while Russian lawmakers moved to curb news coverage of anti-terrorist operations, including the war in Chechnya.

Warlord Shamil Basayev said in a Web site statement that his group was behind the theater raid and promised that future attacks would be even more destructive.

"The next time, those who come won't make any demands, won't take hostages," Basayev said on a Chechen Web site. Their "main goal will be destroying the enemy and exacting maximum damage."

The authenticity of the statement could not be confirmed.

Basayev claimed the attack was planned without the knowledge of the breakaway republic's elected leader, Aslan Maskhadov. He asked Maskhadov's forgiveness for preparing the raid in secret and said he would resign from all posts in the rebel hierarchy.

Kremlin officials, who have said Maskhadov was a chief organizer of the hostage attack, called Basayev's statement a smoke screen designed to divert attention from the rebel leader.

"Basayev is trying to shield Maskhadov from blame, to save him for further political games," a Kremlin spokesman, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, told the ITAR-Tass news agency.

Basayev also criticized the world community for denouncing the hostage-takers but failing to express sufficient concern about the "innocent victims of the bloody war in Chechnya," whose plight had motivated the attackers.

Meanwhile, Russia's lower house of parliament on Friday approved amendments to the country's media law that would put severe restrictions on press coverage of "counter-terrorist operations," which would include the war in Chechnya and the special forces operation that rescued hundreds of hostages. But 119 hostages died, 117 from gas used by the Russians and two shot to death by Chechens.

By a margin of 231-106, State Duma lawmakers voted to prohibit the media from distributing information that reveals security tactics or provides information about people involved in them.

The amendments also ban the publication or broadcast of "propaganda or justification of extremist activity."

The changes are expected to be approved by the upper house and signed into law by President Vladimir Putin.

Press watchdog groups said the media law changes would have a chilling effect on debate about the war in Chechnya and the government's tactics during the hostage crisis.

"Everything we're discussing here today can now fall under the rubric of hindering a counter-terrorist operation," said Oleg Panfilov, director of the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, on Friday. "This may be the last time we can talk about this."

Coverage of Chechnya is already severely restricted. It is nearly impossible for journalists to report there without working with the Russian military and the Moscow-backed Chechen administration.

The hostage crisis ended Saturday when Russian special forces stormed the theater. Many of the hostages died from the effects of the fentanyl-based gas Russian officials used to incapacitate the terrorists before entering the building.

About 155 former hostages, including four children, remained hospitalized Friday, the Interfax news agency report, citing the Moscow Health Committee. It said 496 former hostages had been discharged from hospitals

In another vote — this one 288-1 with two abstentions — Russian lawmakers passed a bill to prohibit returning the bodies of terrorists to their families or revealing their place of burial, a vote that drew criticism from some liberal lawmakers.

"We do not live in the Middle Ages and (such a law) can bring nothing but anguish and anger to the relatives," said Boris Nadezhdin of the Union of Right Forces party.

Alexander Kotenkov, the president's representative in parliament, said that under Russian law, the bodies of criminals executed by court order are not returned to relatives, and the bodies of terrorists are no different.

By an overwhelming margin, the Duma also passed a resolution condemning the World Chechen Congress, a two-day conference held this week in Denmark that included rebel representatives, Interfax reported.

Russia has sharply criticized the Danish government for hosting the congress and said it hopes Denmark will extradite Maskhadov's envoy, Akhmed Zakayev, who was arrested in Copenhagen on an international arrest warrant.

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