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Chechen Rebel Was Proud of Attacks on Russians

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Today, Russia is welcoming the death of its most wanted man. Shamil Basayev was a leader of Chechen rebels, an airplane hijacker, and a hostage taker. His most notorious crime was the Beslan school siege that left hundreds dead. Basayev's own turn came yesterday, in an explosion.

NPR's Lawrence Sheets, met Basayev many times while he was covering the wars in Chechnya. And he's on the line.

And Lawrence, what was he like when you met him?

LAWRENCE SHEETS reporting:

Basayev was definitely an extremely serious and driven character. At the same time, generally he was very understated in his demeanor. He could be almost serene in a way, and deceivingly charming. He had a lot of charisma, often known for his acerbic sense of humor. He laced almost every sentence with irony, with jokes. But let's make no mistake about it, we know that Basayev was a man capable of very cold-blooded ruthlessness. We know that from his planning of the school seizure, in Beslan, in southern Russia. All this in the name of his mission.

He saw his historical mission, that began as a struggle for Chechen independence, and later morphed into this goal of setting up a quasi Taliban, if you will, like Islamic caliphate all over the Muslim parts of southern Russia.

INSKEEP: Hmm. How did Russian security force finally get him?

SHEETS: Well, there're two versions, actually. Both versions agree that Basayev and several of his cohorts were killed, while loading explosives into a truck in the southern Republic of Ingushetia. But that's where the diversions diverge, Steve. The Russians are now saying that, that explosion was detonated as part of a special operation - they're not saying just how - against a group of Chechen militants, including Basayev.

But the local government officials, some of them in Ingushetia, and police officials there, say he was killed as part of a mishap, when the rebels accidentally set off the munitions. That's the same version that the separatists are putting out. They say that the Russian Special Forces did not kill him, but rather Basayev died when these explosives detonated.

INSKEEP: Lawrence, when you spoke with this man, Basayev, did he ever indicate what he expected to happen after his death? Or did he foresee his own death?

SHEETS: He absolutely talked about his own death, and said that he was one of many, and that his mission was no different than any other Chechen who was fighting to rid his homeland of Russian influence, and basically retaliate for what they saw as atrocities having been committed by the Russian military. This was a man who didn't really care that people called him a terrorist. He wore that label like an emblem at the end of his so-called career, having denied that he was a terrorist in earlier years. In the end for Basayev, the ends justified the means. And the ends were driving the Russia out of Chechnya and setting up this Islamic state.

INSKEEP: So Lawrence, the Russian President Vladimir Putin can say that they stopped this man from one more big attack, near this G8 Summit that's coming up in St. Petersburg. But where does this leave Russia in dealing with this separatist movement, now, that's dogged them for years?

SHEETS: Well, the separatist movement has become increasingly marginalized and radicalized. Shamil Basayev was the last remaining towering figure, left over from 10 years ago, 12 years ago, when the first Chechen war started. His elimination means that virtually all of the major figures are now gone or in exile. It's a huge victory for Russia, as they try to deal with this increasingly weakening separatist movement.

INSKEEP: Okay. That's NPR's Lawrence Sheets in Tbilisi, Georgia. He's reporting on the death of Chechen rebel leader Shamil Basayev.

Lawrence, thanks.

SHEETS: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lawrence Sheets
Lawrence Scott Sheets concentrates on covering the Caucasus region of the former Soviet Union from his base in Tbilisi, Republic of Georgia. From 2001 to 2005, Sheets was NPR’s Moscow Bureau Chief, and covered the countries of former USSR, including Russia, Ukraine, and Central Asia. Among major stories Sheets has covered for NPR have been the tragic siege of a school by a pro-Chechen separatist terror group in 2004 in which 330 mostly children were killed, the 6-week long "Orange Revolution" that brought down Ukraine’s old government in 2004, and the "Rose Revolution" in Georgia in 2003. Sheets has also reported for NPR from Iran and Afghanistan. He covered the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan during 2001 and 2002, including the bloody Taliban uprising at a fortress in Mazar e Sharif in which hundreds of people died.Sheets’ reports can be heard on NPR's , All Things Considered, Day to Day, and Weekend Edition.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.