Russia Says It Can Hit Militants Abroad
AP/September 13, 2004
Russia has the right to carry out pre-emptive strikes on militant bases abroad, Russia's defense minister said Sunday, citing the school hostage crisis. He said Moscow and the United States see eye to eye on fighting terrorism.
Sergei Ivanov did not say what countries might be possible targets for a strike, but Russian officials in the past have said Chechen separatists have bases in nearby Georgia, and Moscow has had friction with that country's pro-U.S. government over the issue.
President Vladimir Putin has blamed international terrorism for the school hostage crisis at Beslan in southern Russia where at least 330 hostages died on Sept. 3. He lashed out at those in the West who continued to advise Russia to conduct peace talks with rebels in Chechnya, sneering that they should negotiate with Osama bin Laden.
President Bush visited the Russian Embassy in Washington on Sunday, signing a book of condolence for victims of the school hostage seizure and expressing outrage at the actions of "evil terrorists."
"The atrocities that took place in the school were beyond comprehension," the president told reporters.
Ivanov told the NTV television channel he had spoken twice with U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld last week, adding the U.S. administration was more receptive to Moscow's arguments on how to fight terror than some European officials.
"The Americans and the U.S. military have a better understanding of the seriousness of this threat since we and the United States have both been targeted in powerful terror attacks," Ivanov said in the television interview.
"In that sense, it has been easier for us to find a basis for mutual understanding with the United States than with some of the European nations."
There was no immediate U.S. comment on Russia's right to pre-emptive strikes. Speaking Sunday on Fox television, Secretary of State Colin Powell said the school seizure and other recent attacks in Russia highlighted the need for stronger global anti-terror efforts.
"We have to do even more together to make sure the civilized worlds join together in the war against terrorism," Powell said.
In Sunday's interview, Ivanov repeated an earlier statement that a "pre-emptive strike may involve anything, except nuclear weapons."
"They have declared a war on us, we have come under attack, so all means are good in a war," he said. "We have permanent readiness units, precision air-launched weapons and so on."
Officials have identified some of more than 30 attackers in the school seizure as Chechens, and have said that others included Arabs and citizens of other nations.
Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has said the school hostage-taking was directed by Shamil L Basayev, the most notorious of the warlords leading Chechen rebels who have been fighting Russian forces for five years.
Lavrov also said Aslan Maskhadov. Chechnya's president from 1996-99, was connected to the hostage-taking.
An envoy for Maskhadov, Akhmed Zakayev, told the German magazine Der Spiegel that he and Maskhadov had offered to negotiate during the crisis and Maskhadov's followers have no connection with Basayev.
Ivanov said many of the hostage takers had been eager to save their own lives and "Not all of them were suicide attackers. In the first night after the seizure ... some of the terrorists left the school to explore possible ways of retreat."
In an apparent attempt to exploit reported dissension among Chechen rebels, a Russian security official said Saturday that Chechen militants are eligible for a $10 million reward for information about top rebel leaders.
On Saturday, the newspaper Gazeta reported that the hostage-takers' leader was believed to be Ruslan Khuchbarov from neighboring Ingushetia.
The newspaper said the raiders' leader has not been identified as being among the dead militants, but deputy prosecutor-general Vladimir Kolesnikov said the leader was among the dead.
On Saturday, the Interfax news agency cited the Russian health ministry as saying 353 people wounded in the attack remained hospitalized, including 216 children.