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Chechen Warlord Always Brazen -- but Never Caught

September 10, 2004|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — His face, with its bushy black beard and oddly placid eyes, is one of the most familiar in all of Russia. Nor has Shamil Basayev, the ruthless Chechen warlord whose operations are famed for their military precision and audacity, exactly gone out of his way to remain out of sight.

As Russian forces were keeping an eye on the mountains of southern Chechnya for much of the summer, Basayev appeared in a sleepy town of the northern Caucasus -- Nazran, Ingushetia -- presiding over a brazen raid on police and government targets that left 90 dead in that republic.

A video of the June operation shows Basayev, who is missing his right foot, at an apparent police depot, thanking the government for the "good shape" of the weapons seized from the slain officers.

Basayev has led open military raids into the neighboring republic of Dagestan and ambushed countless Russian soldiers in Chechnya. He has taken 1,500 hostages at a hospital, hijacked a plane, organized the assassination of the Russian-backed Chechen president and trained fleets of female snipers and suicide bombers.

He is also responsible, Russian authorities believe, for planning the deadly seizure of a school in North Ossetia republic last week that led to the deaths of 329 hostages.

The one thing Shamil Basayev hasn't done is get arrested.

This week, Russian authorities upped the ante on their own version of Osama bin Laden, offering a $10-million reward for the "neutralization" of Basayev or his fellow Chechen rebel leader, Aslan Maskhadov.

How did a former computer salesman and college dropout -- who in 1991 stood in the idealistic crowd that helped Boris N. Yeltsin protect the Russian parliament from Soviet tanks -- turn into an elusive rebel leader whose exploits have given the phrase "no mercy" new meaning?

Shamil Beno, a former Chechen politician who once was a close associate of Basayev's, said he believed that the Russians had not caught Basayev because his very brazenness often kept them from moving into his suspected lairs. Instead, he said, they repeatedly bombed and shelled his hide-outs, only to find he had slipped out a back door before troops entered.

"Imagine someone who would be willing to fire a grenade launcher at you from inside a room, knowing it would probably kill him too," Beno said. "In simple terms, they're scared.... With Basayev, it's resolve, and readiness. It's being ready to die."

"I have never heard him raise his voice," said reporter Andrei Babitsky, who has covered Chechnya for years for the U.S.-funded Radio Liberty. " ... But his intellect, his fearlessness and his mercilessness have made him a perfect military commander.

"Shamil Basayev has always proceeded from the principle that an armed fight should be extreme by nature," he said. "He is both a symbol of blood-chilling massacre and a real figure who controls and coordinates all the processes that have ultimately marginalized the Chechen resistance movement."

Basayev, 39, is often compared to the legendary Chechen warrior priest, Imam Shamil, who led a 20-year guerrilla war against the Imperial Russian army in the mid-1800s and made his last stand near Basayev's birthplace, in the southern mountain village of Vedeno.

One of the best-known stories told about Basayev's namesake is an incident in 1843 in which war-weary Chechens sent Shamil's mother to him with a request to either provide proper protection from the Russians or make peace.

As recounted in Carlotta Gall and Thomas de Waal's "Calamity in the Caucasus," the imam ordered that the bearer of such a message -- his mother -- be given 100 lashes.

When his mother fainted after the fifth lash, Shamil stripped off his own coat and took the remaining 95 himself. "After that," Gall and De Waal wrote, "there was no more suggestion of surrender."

Basayev quickly took up arms in the budding Chechen independence movement that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, hijacking a plane bound for Turkey and threatening to blow it up if Russian troops advanced on Chechnya. Basayev fought with separatists in the breakaway region of Abkhazia, in Georgia, and in the war that broke out in Chechnya in 1994 he served as a senior field commander in Grozny, the capital.

An analysis by the U.S. Foreign Military Studies Office worried then that Basayev represented just the kind of adversary that American forces would face in future wars, and said he had "brought the Russian military goliath to its knees" with his well-planned guerrilla tactics. Long before Baghdad, Basayev perfected the art of roadside bombings directed at military convoys and rocket-propelled grenade attacks from fighters who then melted back into the city.

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