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Basayev, Maskhadov Lead Chechen Separatists Through Different Paths - 2004-10-13

For the past 10 years, Chechnya has been the scene of violence as Russian forces try to defeat separatist rebels.

Last month, Chechen separatists attacked a school in Beslan, North Ossetia. They took more than 1,100 people hostage. The three-day siege ended in a battle between Russian security forces and Chechen rebels that left more than 330 people, half of them children, dead.

Former Chechen president and rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov denounced the Beslan attack, saying there is no justification for such action. But another Chechen separatist leader, Shamil Basayev, claimed responsibility for the school raid.

"Shamil Basayev is a very extraordinary character, a sort of talented 'wastrel' people used to call him," said Thomas de Waal, an expert on the Caucasus and has written extensively on Chechnya. He is the Caucasus Editor at London's Institute for War and Peace Reporting. He says Mr. Basayev is a ferocious warlord... "He dropped out of university in Moscow and toured places like Afghanistan and Tajikistan, training to be a warrior," said Mr. Waal. "He fought in the war against Georgia in the Black Sea province of Abkhazia in 1992-93 alongside the Russians.

"He then went back to Chechnya and of course when the war broke out, he was a man much called upon because he was by then an extremely formidable and ruthless warrior," he added.

In 1995, Mr. Basayev led Chechen fighters to the southern Russian town of Budyonovsk. There they took over a hospital and 1,500 hostages. Russian forces failed to dislodge him. More than 120 people were killed. Eventually, Mr. Basayev negotiated with the Russian government, released his prisoners and got safe passage to Chechnya.

Mr. De Waal says it is Mr. Basayev's incursion from Chechnya into the neighboring Republic of Dagestan that forced then Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to send troops into the region.

"Since then, Basayev has proved to be a very formidable propagandist. He has had an Islamist website and he has claimed not only responsibility for the Beslan massacre, but also for the theater siege in Moscow in 2002. So he is obviously now turned from a sort of small-time Chechen warrior to a major international terrorist," he said.

Experts say Aslan Maskhadov is far more moderate than Shamil Basayev. Trained as an artillery officer, Mr. Maskhadov spent many years in the Soviet army, serving in Hungary and Lithuania. After the collapse of the Soviet Union 13 years ago, he returned to Chechnya and under his leadership, Chechen forces defeated the Russian army in 1996.

Mr. De Waal says although he was fighting a war, Mr. Maskhadov was always trying to negotiate with the Russian government. He was elected President of Chechnya in 1997.

"What was remarkable about those elections was that Russia recognized them. The Chechens said it was an election for an independent Chechnya; the Russians said it was an election for a province of Russia and both sides agreed to disagree," he said. "But what they did agree on, was that there would be international monitors and those international monitors agreed that the election was free and fair and that Maskhadov was the legitimate president, and Maskhadov was duly congratulated by President Yeltsin as the leader of Chechnya."

But in 1999, as a result of Shamil Basayev's incursion into neighboring Dagestan, Russian troops entered Chechnya and ousted Mr. Maskhadov. Mr. De Waal says he is back in the hills of the North Caucasus, fighting a guerilla war against Russia.

Last month, Russian authorities offered a $10 million reward for information leading to the capture of Mr. Maskhadov and Mr. Basayev. But many western experts on Russia say you cannot compare the two Chechen leaders.

George Washington University Russia specialist Peter Reddaway says the two men parted company several years ago.

"Maskhadov included Basayev in his initial government, but Basayev broke with the government in 1998 and ever since then, there has been a big gap between them,"said Mr. Reddaway. "That gap has been even further widened because Basayev has claimed responsibility for the Beslan tragedy and Maskhadov issued an extremely tough denunciation of Basayev for doing that, and said that as and when Chechnya becomes independent Basayev would, if he is still alive, would be, if possible, captured and put on trial for what he did in Beslan."

Since Mr. Maskhadov's ouster, there has been a succession of pro-Moscow governments in Chechnya. The violence there has not stopped.

Many experts believe a political solution can only be found if the Russian government agrees to talk to Chechen separatists. But up to now that has not happened, since Moscow believes Mr. Basayev and Mr. Maskhadov are terrorists.