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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Unrepentant Basayev Blames Russia

Shamil Basayev, the Chechen commander who led the June terrorist raid on the south Russian city of Budyonnovsk, is not interested in getting an amnesty from the Russians.

"We are not criminals who have to be amnestied. The criminals are those who started the war, those who began the genocide of the Chechen people," he said in a recent interview at a secret location in the mountains of south Chechnya.

"We are defending our people, our honor and freedom," he said. "For this reason we have no need for an amnesty and we do not need an amnesty from the Russian empire."

Basayev, 30, was granted safe passage from Budyonnovsk into Chechnya under a deal negotiated by Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin to end the week-long hostage crisis, which left more than 100 people dead and a trail of destruction.

Moscow has ordered his arrest, but so far he has succeeded in eluding the Russian authorities, while making himself available for several interviews with Russian and foreign journalists.

Basayev, who described himself as the commander of Chechnya's "Intelligence and Sabotage Battalion" with the rank of colonel, expressed some support for the current peace process, but stressed that there could be no settlement without full independence for the breakaway republic.

"It does not depend on me, or on anyone. Our people will not accept anything other than full independence. I will personally be ready to accept and lay down my arms if there is, say, a referendum and our people decide they want to be part of Russia or something. Then I will keep quiet. But no one has the right to sign any agreement, particularly if it involves belonging to Russia."

Basayev appeared relaxed and self-assured, soft spoken, but with a grim determination. In the early stages of the Chechen war, he gained a reputation as a ruthless and tough commander, who played a leading role in the six-week battle for Grozny. The loss of 11 members of his family during the defense of his home town of Vedeno, which fell to the Russians on June 4, appeared if anything to strengthen his resolve.

Speaking of the Budyonnovsk raid, he expressed regret over the loss of life, but insisted that his men had not targeted civilians. Those that died, he said, had been caught in cross fire, or hit by Russian troops attempting to storm the hospital where the rebels were holding more than 1,000 hostages. Well over 100 people died in the raid and its aftermath.

Sitting on a bench at the edge of a village, with a deep valley stretching away behind him, Basayev's paramilitary getup seemed at odds with the picture of rural tranquility around him. He was dressed in combat fatigues and wearing his trademark green floppy hat, an automatic rifle he said he had bought from Russian soldiers for $300 slung over his shoulder and a sidearm holstered at his belt

He blamed the frequent ceasefire violations of the last few weeks on Russian forces and what he called pro-Moscow Chechen groups, who he said posed serious difficulties for the peace process.

"These are the people the problems come from, because it isn't in their interests that the war should end."

Basayev denied reports of a rift in the camp of President Dzhokhar Dudayev and expressed his own total loyalty to the Chechen leader. "He is my head commander and president," he said.

At the time of the Budyonnovsk raid, Dudayev condemned it as an act of terrorism and denied that it had been carried out at his behest. But this view was apparently shared by few people in Chechnya, where Basayev received a hero's welcome on his return.

Dudayev has not repeated his criticism since the crisis, and despite assurances from the Chechen side at the Grozny peace talks that Basayev would be apprehended and handed over, there are clearly no efforts being made to do this.

Ironically, Budyonnovsk proved a catalyst in starting the peace talks that led to last weekend's military agreement, although Basayev -- interviewed last week, before the agreement was signed -- played this aspect down.

"It did happen to push the talks into action, but as far as the negotiations themselves are concerned, it had no effect whatsoever," he said.

Should the peace process fail, or result in anything other than a complete Russian military withdrawal -- something the agreement of last weekend falls some way short of providing -- Basayev says he is determined to fight on to what he calls complete victory. But in the event of peace, when it eventually comes, he has entirely different plans:

"What will I do? I'll make honey," he said.