Rebel warlord promises more attacks in the future

The Associated Press
Eric Engleman

Chechnya’s leading rebel warlord claimed responsibility yesterday for the
hostage siege at a Moscow theatre while Russian legislators 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 theatre 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 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 raid that rescued hundreds of hostages but led to at least 119
deaths.
By a margin of 231-106, State Duma members 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, yesterday. “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 last Saturday when Russian special forces stormed
the theatre. 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 in hospital
yesterday, according to a Interfax news agency report, citing the Moscow Health
Committee. It said 496 former hostages had been discharged from hospitals.