Moscow angry at Chechen rebel statement

By Neil Buckley in Moscow

Financial Times

Published: October 15 2005

Russia took a new diplomatic swipe at Britain on Friday night after Akhmed Zakayev, the UK-based Chechen rebel spokesman, called Thursday's attack by separatist gunmen in southern Russia “legitimate” and warned Russia to brace for more.

Russian officials claimed 108 people had died in the assault in the small republic of Kabardino-Balkaria by gunmen linked to rebels in breakaway Chechnya, 100 miles away.

Sergei Lavrov, Russia's foreign minister, said Mr Zakayev's statement violated two United Nations Security Council resolutions. These included one adopted last year on Russia's initiative after the bloody school siege at Beslan, stating that attempts to use force against civilians for political reasons should be regarded as terrorist acts.

“When he said Russia should wait for new attacks, [that] goes beyond all limits of law and morals and we hope proper measures will be taken in regard to him,” Mr Lavrov said.

The presence in the UK of Mr Zakayev, wanted in Russia on terrorism charges, has been a running sore in relations between the two countries, with Britain maintaining that the decision to grant him asylum was up to the courts. Tony Brenton, Britain's ambassador to Moscow, recently said Russia had to provide more evidence of Mr Zakayev's guilt if he was to be extradited.

Thursday's attack in Nalchik, Kabardino-Balkaria's capital, was a further sign of violence spreading across Russia's volatile northern Caucasus.

The city was quiet by late Friday. Russian police and soldiers were sweeping the city for remaining rebels, claiming that they had killed 72 and detained 31, though a Chechen rebel website said only 11 fighters were dead with four missing. Officials said 24 police and 12 civilians had been killed.

President Vladimir Putin vowed further acts of insurgence would meet a similarly tough response.

“Our actions must be commensurate with all the threats that bandits pose for our country. We will act as hard and consistently as we did on this occasion,” Mr Putin said.

Officials said about 100 attackers had seized police stations, the local security service headquarters and other law enforcement targets, although some local reports put the number much higher.

The attack was the first major assault since Abdul-Khalid Sadulayev took over as Chechen rebel leader after Aslan Maskhadov was killed by Russian forces in March.

“This was a legitimate military operation which took place in the framework of the Caucasus front,” Mr Zakayev told Reuters. Mr Zakayev, recently appointed a deputy prime minister in the rebel Chechens' “shadow government”, said Russia should “definitely” expect more attacks.