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Last Updated: Thursday, 9 September 2004, 18:33 GMT 19:33 UK
Viewpoint: Top Chechen commanders
By Sebastian Smith
Caucasus analyst

Shamil Basayev (left) and Aslan Maskhadov (Archive picture)
The pair jointly led the fierce Chechen resistance in the 1990s
Moscow has declared top Chechen rebel leaders Shamil Basayev and Aslan Maskhadov equally culpable in the Beslan tragedy.

But in reality the pair share little other than the goal of driving Russian forces from Chechnya - and a habit of speaking quietly.

Mr Basayev, who is thought to be linked to last week's hostage massacre in Beslan, has always been a proponent of force - the more daring, or shockingly brutal, the better.

From the first days of former President Boris Yeltsin's fateful assault on Grozny in 1994, the small, but lithe, bearded commander was the first Chechen commander to attack and last to retreat.

I noted this resilience when meeting Mr Basayev in 1995, in his home village of Vedeno in the Caucasus mountains.

Those Chechens wishing to fight - and there still seem to be many - [are left] with one natural leader: Shamil Basayev

Russian forces were closing in and the Chechens had almost run out of ammunition and men.

An air strike had just killed 11 of Mr Basayev's relatives as they sat cowering in their house. "That was nothing," he told me. But there was an icy streak to his soft voice.

When news broke less than two weeks later that Chechen rebels had taken hostage an entire hospital in the town of Budyonnovsk, deep inside Russia, I was not surprised to see who was in command: Basayev.

Reluctant politician

After the end of the first war in Chechnya in 1996, Mr Basayev tried entering politics.

Shamil Basayev (archive picture)
Basayev led the notorious hostage-taking raid in Budyonnovsk

A surprisingly humorous man, he joked that after warfare, politics was fun. "It's just blah, blah."

But swapping camouflage for a suit did not give Mr Basayev the necessary skills.

Instead of learning the art of compromise, he drifted into radical Islam and assumed leadership of a new, extremist wing that would help drag Chechnya into another conflict against Russia in 1999.

Mr Maskhadov has also been at war since 1994. But this jug-eared, grey bearded ex-colonel of the Soviet Army never lost an urbane manner and willingness to negotiate.

While Mr Basayev the field commander is never far from his Kalashnikov, or long Caucasian dagger - the kinzhal - Mr Maskhadov maintains the air of a staff officer.

Life on the run

Like all the other rebel leaders, Mr Maskhadov has shared the privations of life on the run. My interviews with him have been in damp cellars, forests and a variety of temporary safehouses.

Aslan Maskhadov (archive picture)
Maskhadov won the Chechen election after the first war
But each time, he appeared immaculately turned out, his olive-green jersey uncreased, his hair combed, and no weapon in sight.

Although dedicated to Chechen independence, Mr Maskhadov has always made it clear he is open to close relations with Russia.

When presidential elections were held after the first war, he won easily, persuading his weary people that his ability to compromise would keep them safe.

In the event, Mr Maskhadov's flexibility was not nearly enough to handle a devastated land, an unemployed army of ex-guerrillas, vicious crime gangs, and relations with the embittered Russian establishment.

Unable to rein in his own hardliners, he lost influence at home and abroad. Mr Basayev, the focus for men seeking vengeance against Russia at home, and for Islamic activists abroad, filled the vacuum.

When war restarted in 1999, the two men and their followers were forced together. They fought side-by-side as Russian forces once more blasted their way into Grozny. Mr Basayev lost a foot in the retreat.

Basayev fights on

But five years into that new conflict, it is increasingly Mr Basayev's almost apocalyptic vision that rules.

Mr Maskhadov, who condemned the tragedy in Beslan and has called repeatedly for unconditional talks, appears to have diminishing influence over military events.

Any political influence he may enjoy with Chechens has been undercut by Moscow's attitude.

That leaves Moscow with no one to talk to. That also leaves those Chechens wishing to fight - and there still seem to be many - with one natural leader: Shamil Basayev.

Sebastian Smith works for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) and is author of Allah's Mountains - the Battle for Chechnya.

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