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Russia: Kremlin Claims Maskhadov Had Prior Knowledge Of Hostage Taking

Moscow, 31 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Kremlin spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembskii said Russia possesses telephone recordings of conversations that suggest Aslan Maskhadov, the Chechen separatist president, may have had prior knowledge of last week's hostage-taking operation in Moscow.

Yastrzhembskii made the comment today at a packed news conference in Moscow that included experts, former hostages, and Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov.

He also said Russia would take its antiterrorism campaign abroad by pressuring countries, including Qatar, Turkey, and Georgia, to hand over Chechen rebel leaders it suspects of committing terrorist acts.

Yastrzhembskii said the hostage crisis was timed to coincide with the World Chechen Congress held in Denmark this week. "The political and military wings of the terrorists acted in unison," he said. "It is our firm belief that what happened in Moscow was connected with the plans of the organizers of the [World Chechen Congress] in Denmark. In fact, it has always been Maskhadov's political style to use any international event related to the discussion of the Chechen problem -- be it in Strasbourg, Brussels, or any other place in the world -- to draw attention to himself."

Moscow has already seen results from its stepped-up campaign. Danish police yesterday arrested Maskhadov envoy Akhmed Zakaev after the Chechen conference. Russia has asked for him to be extradited.

During the news conference, officials played what they said were intercepted mobile-telephone conversations between rebels taking part in the hostage crisis and Chechen separatist leaders.

They included a conversation on the last day of the standoff between Movsar Baraev, the leader of the group of 50 hostage takers, and a person whom officials identified as the Chechen warlord Zelimkhan Yandarbiev, speaking from Qatar where he currently lives. After listening to the tape, RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service expressed doubts that the voice was Yandarbiev's.

The voices, translated into Russian from barely audible Chechen, discuss Chechen leader Aslan Maskhadov's approval of the hostage operation. Yastrzhembskii said Baraev indicated he was acting on orders of top rebel leader Shamil Basaev, who himself was acting on orders from Maskhadov.

Voice 1: "Wait, I don't know, does Aslan [Maskhadov] know about this operation or not?"

Voice 2: "When the preparation for this operation was going on, Shamil [Basaev] was there. Shamil's nothing. Shamil was carrying out Aslan's orders. But the operation was very secret."

Yastrzhembskii said that the Chechens were probably aware that their conversations were being monitored and may have made intentionally misleading statements.

Maskhadov has publicly condemned the hostage-taking operation and terrorism in general.

Meanwhile, Moscow Prosecutor Mikhail Avdyukov said foreign hostage takers took part in the operation. "According to the documents that we found at the [Dubrovka Theater Center], not all of the terrorists were Chechens. We have information that there were also people from foreign countries among them," Avdyukov said.

Federal Security Service criminology expert Vladimir Yeremin presented physical evidence gathered in the investigation of the hostage crisis. He showed slides of large bombs and exhibited some of more than 100 manufactured and handmade hand grenades, some packed with small metal-ball projectiles. He said the explosives equaled between 110 and 120 kilograms of TNT.

The explosives could have easily caused the building to collapse and killed all the occupants, Yeremin said.

But Yeremin and others taking part in the briefing were unable to answer some of the most pressing questions concerning the Russian special forces' storming of the theater. These include why the hostage takers, who held detonators in their hands, did not set off explosions in the first minutes of the operation, even when a number of hostages said it was clear a raid was being staged.

"It's difficult for me to answer that question," Yeremin said.