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Chechen Rebel Envoy Arrested in Denmark

Russia suspects that Ahmed Zakayev, once a key peace negotiator, helped plan the Moscow theater siege. He may face terrorism charges.

October 31, 2002|David Holley | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — Responding to a Russian request, Danish authorities Wednesday arrested Chechen rebel envoy Ahmed Zakayev and said he may be extradited to face terrorism charges.

Zakayev -- a top aide to Aslan Maskhadov, the former Chechen president -- was once a key peace negotiator. His arrest, after last week's deadly seizure of a Moscow theater by armed Chechens, further reduces prospects for ending the war in Chechnya.

Danish police said Russian authorities suspect that Zakayev, 43, helped prepare the siege in which at least 119 hostages died, nearly all from a gas used by Russian police forces who stormed the theater. Moscow also accuses him of terrorist acts from 1996 to 1999.

After days of an internationally criticized refusal by Russian authorities to identify the gas, Health Minister Yuri L. Shevchenko said Wednesday that it was based on fentanyl. That drug, a powerful synthetic version of morphine, normally is not used as an inhaled anesthetic.

Shevchenko said the gas would not cause death unless those exposed to it were weakened. He said he could "officially declare" that no internationally banned chemical weapons were used in the rescue operation.

Zakayev's arrest came amid signs of a growing anti-Islamic hysteria in the Russian media and widespread advocacy of tough national security measures, which some observers see as threatening an even bloodier conflict in Chechnya and an erosion of Russia's still-shaky democratic freedoms.

Izvestia, one of Russia's most liberal and influential daily newspapers, carried an exceptionally harsh front-page commentary Wednesday charging that "there is no freedom-fighting" in Chechnya but only "a struggle for the right to steal oil" and "a monstrous plan of Islamic extremists, a plan to annihilate the entire Christian civilization."

The attack on the theater was "part of this worldwide plan," the commentary said. "We must understand as soon as possible that to save civilization and save Russia means to make sacrifices." The article also praised Yuri V. Andropov, a onetime KGB chief and one of the last hard-line Communist leaders of the Soviet Union.

The article is a "landmark which signifies growing popularity of tougher domestic policy measures among the Russian political and intellectual elite," said Liliya F. Shevtsova, an analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center. "The police regime in Russia is bound to become stronger and tougher."

A popular Russian tabloid, Moskovsky Komsomolets, ran an article Wednesday saying that rather than being given to relatives, the bodies of about 50 Chechen rebels killed at the theater would be wrapped in pigskins and buried by state security services.

"Writing about burying Muslims in pigskins is nothing but a call for blood feud on a nationwide scale," Shevtsova said. "What we can see today is that former Russian liberals and democrats are marching in the vanguard rows under the banner of the Black Hundred," a reference to extremists who carried out pogroms in czarist times. "This is what is scary."

More funerals were held for dead hostages, including a joint ceremony for two teenage friends, Arseny Kurilenko and Kristina Kurbatova, who were in the cast of "Nord-Ost," the play being performed when the theater was seized. They had been nicknamed "Romeo and Juliet" by their friends, and they were buried side by side.

"They loved each other in their own way, the way kids do," said Artur Kurilenko, Arseny's father. He too warned against a turn to vengeance.

"The most important thing is to avoid all attempts to take revenge, especially on the basis of one's ethnic identity, because people will die," Kurilenko told TVS television. "The most horrible thing is that children will die. We would very much like our children's grave to become a symbol of youth, love and peace."

Zakayev, a onetime actor, took part in the 1996 talks that ended the first, two-year Chechnya war with an uneasy truce and an agreement to discuss Chechen independence in 2001. Russian forces reentered the republic in 1999 after a series of bloody incidents blamed on Chechen separatists, and they have battled guerrillas there ever since.

The only direct negotiations since the war resumed came in November 2001, when Zakayev met a representative of Russian President Vladimir V. Putin for two hours at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport. Russian authorities guaranteed his safety for that trip.

While in Copenhagen for a meeting of the World Chechen Congress, Zakayev condemned the theater raid, in which Chechen fighters took more than 750 hostages. At the same time, he warned that if Moscow did not agree to peace talks, radical factions outside the control of the main rebel authorities might attack targets such as nuclear power plants.

"There is no military solution to the conflict, only a political solution," Zakayev said Monday, a day of national mourning in Russia for the dead hostages. "President Maskhadov is ready to negotiate without preconditions, as he said before. Now it is up to the Russian leadership."

The Kremlin has accused Denmark of showing "solidarity with terrorists," and in protest of Copenhagen's refusal to ban the Chechen congress, Putin canceled a visit there for a European Union-Russia summit scheduled for November. In an effort to placate Moscow, Denmark agreed to move the summit to Brussels.

Still, Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Wednesday that the arrest of Zakayev did not reflect Russian pressure but was decided "according to normal police procedures."

To win Zakayev's extradition, Russia will need to provide more evidence and guarantee that he will not face the death penalty, Danish authorities said.

*

Alexei V. Kuznetsov of The Times' Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.

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