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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

There Are No Rebels Left for Peace Talks

Before the theater siege, Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov was regarded as Russia's most viable negotiating partner for a settlement in Chechnya.

Now his legitimacy in the eyes of both Russia and the West has suffered a devastating blow as he has become inextricably linked to the radical wing of the Chechen separatist movement.

The brutality of the hostage-taking, combined with a war of words from Moscow, might end up delivering what Russia has long been hoping for -- justification in the West for the war in Chechnya.

"Our policy on Chechnya has moved closer to Russia," a senior U.S. diplomat said on condition of anonymity. "This attack has substantially damaged [the Chechen] cause."

The hostage drama is narrowing the gap between the West's perception of Chechen separatists and Russia's, with "Maskhadov-the-politician" beginning to look more like "Maskhadov-the-terrorist," said Andrei Ryabov, a political analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center.

"The Chechen cause had two faces: The one turned to the West was of a moderate Maskhadov and his European-looking envoy Akhmed Zakayev," Ryabov said. "For Russia, the rebels had reserved the mad murderer Khattab and outspoken terrorist Shamil Basayev.

"The hostage drama blended these two faces into one in the world media and public consciousness."

The day before his death, the leader of the hostage-takers, Movsar Barayev, told NTV television that he was acting under orders from Chechen warlord Basayev and that he and his group answered to Maskhadov. Maskhadov appointed Basayev as head of the rebels' operations in June.

"The reaffirmation of his [Maskhadov's] alliance with Basayev tipped the balance against Maskhadov as interlocutor," the U.S. diplomat said. "We see him as unwilling to stand up to terror."

Ryabov said the theater attack had caught the West off-guard. "The West is confused because the image of the rebels that it so wanted to believe did not stand the test," he said.

In a move signaling the change of attitude in the West, Denmark arrested Zakayev at Russia's request Wednesday. Zakayev was in Copenhagen for a Chechen conference that Moscow had angrily opposed. Denmark, which had permitted the conference, citing the right of free speech, changed its mind after Russia sent over information linking Zakayev to terrorism.

Moscow has asked for Zakayev's extradition.

International warrants were issued for Zakayev and Maskhadov in 1999, the Kremlin's chief spokesman for Chechnya, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, said Thursday. He said they are accused of carrying out an armed uprising in Chechnya, participating in illegal armed formations and attempting to kill servicemen.

Yastrzhembsky was speaking at a news conference in which he and other top officials presented what they called compelling evidence that Maskhadov was involved in the theater attack. (Story, Page 3.)

"We can see that the image of Maskhadov -- even in the eyes of those who pushed Moscow toward negotiations with Maskhadov -- has seriously paled," Yastrzhembsky said. "Name one leader [in Chechnya] with whom we could negotiate. I don't know of any such person."

This line of thought is being embraced even by liberal politicians such as Union of Right Forces leader Boris Nemtsov, who had campaigned for negotiations with Maskhadov as the answer to the Chechnya stalemate.

For his part, Maskhadov failed to try to distance himself from the theater attack until after it was over.

Ryabov said Maskhadov must have had some knowledge about the theater plan and chose to wait to condemn the attack because he expected Moscow to cave in to the hostage-takers.

"Maskhadov then would step out as a formidable peacemaker, and the public's attention would shift from the hostage crisis onto him," he said. "The violent pretext of the peace talks, which Maskhadov would have used pragmatically, would quickly fade from public memory."

He said Maskhadov and the rebels had not anticipated the brutal end to the siege that left 41 hostage-takers dead.

"They overestimated their previous experience in such attacks, when they managed to get away with fame and almost no losses," he said.

Basayev and warlord Salman Raduyev managed to escape to Chechnya with hundreds of hostages seized in the southern cities of Budyonnovsk and Kizlyar in raids in 1995 and 1996.