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Russia Offers $10 Million for Chechen Rebel Leaders  - 2004-09-08

Russia's Federal Security Service has offered a $10 million reward for information leading authorities to the two most prominent Chechen rebel leaders. Russia also says it may launch pre-emptive strikes on bases used for training militants.

President Vladimir Putin promised a swift response to last week's terrorist hostage taking in which more than 335 people were killed.

Russia's military chief of staff Yuri Baluyevsky says that Russia reserves the right to mount what he calls "preventive strikes" against terrorist bases anywhere in the world, without specifying where those might be.

The tough words come as security officials offer a reward of $10 million for help in "neutralizing" two leading Chechen separatist leaders: former Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov and the notorious warlord Shamil Basayev.

Mr. Basayev has been Russia's most-wanted man since leading a hostage-taking incident in a hospital near Chechnya in 1995 that left more than 100 people dead. He also claimed responsibility for the hostage-taking siege at a Moscow theater two years ago. But he has been silent about last week's school siege in the town of Beslan.

Mr. Maskhadov was elected president of Chechnya in 1997 when the breakaway republic enjoyed a de-facto form of independence after Russian forces failed to crush separatist fighters in a two-year war. He was driven into hiding in 1999 when then-prime minister Vladimir Putin sent thousands of troops back into Chechnya, the beginning of the bitter second war there that is still going on.

Analysts consider Mr. Maskhadov a political moderate, and he denied any link to last week's siege. The former president even offered to help mediate a peaceful end to the crisis but was rebuffed.

His whereabouts are unknown, although he is believed to be operating in the rugged mountains of southern Chechnya.

Western leaders have long called for President Putin to seek a political solution to the long-running Chechen conflict, and Mr. Maskhadov is thought to be someone who could play a key role in that. But the Kremlin has been resolute in its determination not to negotiate with people it calls "terrorists", a tough stand that has only hardened in the wake of the school siege.

Earlier this week, President Putin asked a group of policy analysts how he could possibly talk with people he calls "child killers", without making any distinction between the many different factions and leaders in Chechnya.

He indirectly criticized Western governments for calling on him to seek a way to end the Chechen war, singling out the United States for saying it reserved the right to meet with representatives from Chechnya.

Meanwhile, grieving relatives in the town of Beslan continue burying the dead, while others continue to search for those who are still missing, including many children.