(AP) MOSCOW – Ten of the militants who seized a school in southern Russia and took about 1,200 hostages have been identified, security officials said Thursday, with six coming from Chechnya, where insurgents have been battling Kremlin forces for five years.
The other four came from Ingushetia, a republic neighboring Chechnya that saw brazen coordinated attacks against police in June, in which 90 people were killed.
The identities, reported by regional security officials on condition of anonymity, appeared to draw a strong connection between the Chechen insurgency and the hostage-taking, which ended in gunfire and explosions that killed at least 326 people.
The presence of Ingush raiders could threaten to inflame long-standing tensions between them and ethnic Ossetians, who are the majority in the republic of North Ossetia where the school was seized.
Also Thursday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov criticized Western countries for granting asylum to Chechen separatist figures, saying the practice weakens global anti-terror efforts.
Lavrov’s comments in Russian newspapers and radio and TV broadcasts reflected longtime Russian anger over what Moscow sees as the West’s receptiveness to the rebels.
Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev, meanwhile, reported to President Vladimir Putin that directors for anti-terrorist commissions had been appointed in the republics of the North Caucasus region, which includes Chechnya.
Few details were given in Nurgaliyev’s televised comments about how the commissions would work, but the announcement clearly showed the Kremlin’s concern that inefficiency and corruption had undermined security and that the violence could spread in the North Caucasus, where ethnic tensions create a potentially volatile mix.
The attacks — the downing of two airliners apparently by explosions, a suicide bombing outside a Moscow subway station and last week’s school siege in the town of Beslan — prompted officials to offer a huge cash reward for information leading to the killing or capture of top Chechen rebel leaders and a pledge to go after terrorists all over the world.
Russia consistently brushes off criticism that its policies in Chechnya and the brutality of its troops there feed resentment that boosts support for rebels waging a five-year insurgency. The Kremlin instead contends that the militants are trained and supported by international terrorist groups, like al-Qaida.
“Granting asylum to people involved in terrorism — and Russia has documented evidence of this — not only causes us regret but also effectively undermines the unity of the anti-terrorist coalition,” Lavrov was quoted as saying.
Apparently to push the international terrorism contention, Lavrov planned to meet Thursday with Rudolph Giuliani, who was mayor of New York when the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks occurred.
Russian officials have been particularly angered by Britain’s granting of asylum to Akhmed Zakayev, an envoy for Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov, and the United States’ granting of asylum to Ilyas Akhmadov, who was foreign minister under Maskhadov during Chechnya’s de-facto independence in the late 1990s.
“It is enough to recall Akhmed Zakayev’s statement made from London, in which he plainly and bluntly and without any intricacies blamed what happened in Beslan on the Russian leadership. I believe the cynicism of this statement is clear to everybody,” Lavrov said.
“We are far from accusing the leaders of major countries … of deliberately preserving this double standard,” he said. “But the inertia is still very strong.”
On Wednesday, the Federal Security Service offered a reward of $10 million for information that could help “neutralize” Maskhadov and longtime rebel warlord Shamil Basayev.
News of the reward offer came as Russia’s top military commander, Col.-Gen. Yuri Baluyevsky, said that “we will take all measures to liquidate terrorist bases in any region of the world,” including launching pre-emptive strikes.
Russian leaders have asserted the right to act preemptively before, flexing the nuclear-armed former superpower’s muscles and tacitly threatening tiny neighboring Georgia that they would pursue Chechen rebels allegedly sheltering on its territory.
Two Russian agents were convicted this year in Qatar for a February car bombing there that killed another Chechen rebel leader, Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev. Russia, however, has denied involvement in the killing.
The European Union, already at odds with the Bush administration over pre-emptive military strikes, reacted cautiously to the military chief’s statement. EU spokeswoman Emma Udwin suggested it was unclear whether the remarks reflected official Russian policy, saying “we have not heard anything similar from President Putin himself.”
Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov has said more than once that Russia could use pre-emptive strikes to counter security threats.
Baluyevsky’s statement seemed aimed to ease rising Russian fears following the nearly simultaneous explosions aboard two planes, a Moscow suicide bombing and the school seizure.
The Federal Security Service, the main successor to the Soviet KGB, said Maskhadov and Basayev had been responsible for “inhuman terrorist acts on the territory of the Russian Federation.”
The Foreign Ministry said Tuesday that evidence points to involvement by Maskhadov. A man authorities say is the only hostage-taker detained after the attack has said on state-run television that he was told Basayev and Maskhadov ordered the attack.