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IN THE NEWS - Russia Offers Reward for Chechen Rebel Leaders - 2004-09-11

Broadcast: September 11, 2004

This is Steve Ember with In the News in VOA Special English.

This week, the government of Russia offered ten million dollars for information leading to two commanders of the rebels in Chechnya. Russian officials say Shamil Basayev and Aslan Maskhadov organized the attack a week ago at a school in southern Russia. Aslan Maskhadov is the former president of Chechnya. Both men denied any involvement.

More than three hundred people were killed at the school in the town of Beslan in North Ossetia. Many of them were children. A group of thirty men and women held more than one thousand people hostage for fifty-two hours.

Russian officials say the attackers apparently set off explosives by accident. Many of the hostages then tried to flee and were shot. This led to a raid by Russian security forces that killed most of the attackers. Seven hundred people were injured in the resulting explosions and fire.

A man identified as a captured hostage-taker appeared on state television. He said the attackers were told that the goal was to start a war across the Caucasus. The area has a mixture of ethnic and religious groups.

Russian officials said several of the militants who seized the school came from other countries. Some attackers reportedly were Arabs. This has not been independently confirmed.

Russian media have called the school attack "Russia's 9/11," comparing it to the attacks on the United States on September eleventh, two thousand one. Tens of thousands of people demonstrated in Moscow Tuesday to denounce terrorism and attacks on children. Anger over the school attack in Beslan led the president of North Ossetia to promise that his government would resign.

Russian President Vladimir Putin promised to lead a full war against terrorism. But he also noted weaknesses in Russian security forces. Some officials have proposed travel and other restrictions in an effort to prevent rebels from moving freely around the country.

For ten years, Russian troops have tried to crush a movement to gain independence for Chechnya and its mostly Muslim population. The Russian government says it has evidence that fighters from Arab countries and other areas have gone to fight in Chechnya. The government believes that the Chechen conflict is an example of international terrorism.

Mister Putin promised to end the Chechen conflict when he was elected four years ago. But he has rejected recent Western calls to negotiate with representatives of the rebels. He said the Chechen cause was designed to spread to all of southern Russia.

The school hostage crisis began one day after a bomber in Moscow killed herself and nine other people. It happened outside an underground train station. And, a week earlier, bombs destroyed two Russian passenger airplanes. Officials also linked those attacks to female bombers. Ninety people were killed.

In the News in VOA Special English was written by Cynthia Kirk. This is Steve Ember.