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Chechnya Warlord Reportedly Killed

LYNN NEARY, host:

Chechen leader Shamil Basayev reportedly has been killed. For more than a decade, Basayev organized some of Russia's worst terrorist attacks. Most notoriously he claimed responsibility for the 2004 attack in which terrorists seized a school in Beslan. More than 300 people died in that attack. Most of them were children.

For some insight into Basayev's life and what his death may signal, we turn to Sarah Mendelson. She's a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies here in Washington. She joins us by phone from her office.

Thanks so much for being with us.

Ms. SARAH MENDELSON (Senior Fellow, Center for Strategic and International Studies): Thank you, Lynn.

NEARY: First of all, what do we know about the circumstances of Basayev's death?

Ms. MENDELSON: Well, we're seeing and hearing conflicting reports. Today, the head of the FSB, that is the domestic security services, told President Putin that a special operations had been conducted overnight in Engochechnya(ph) that had killed Basayev.

But the Web site of Basayev's organization suggests that he was blown up accidentally by explosions that they were transporting.

NEARY: Now, from what I have read, he went through a real radicalizing kind of process and eventually became really one of the worst terrorists certainly over there but in the world.

Ms. MENDELSON: Absolutely ruthless. I think we tend to focus on the human rights abuses that are committed by states. I think it's important to pause and think about the human rights abuses that are committed by terrorists.

I mean, these are kind of epic moments. I remember watching the hospital siege in June, 1995, which seems like a very long time ago and a sort of innocent age. But in southern Russia, he took over 1,000 people hostage and over 100 people died.

But his story is, in many ways, the story of Soviet-born Chechens. He was born in a village but he studied for a while in Moscow. His family had been deported and many had perished under Stalin.

But he was involved in - it depends on how you think about hijacking. I think of hijacking as a terrorist event. He hijacked a plane in 1991 that went to Turkey. No one was injured. He let people go. But it suggests to me that he had certainly some radical tendencies, violent tendencies, if you will.

But in May '95, apparently, his - parts of his family were killed, maybe his wife and children. And it was shortly after that that he took the hospital hostage.

Now, people remember the theater siege in October, 2002, and of course the September, 2004 school hostage-taking in Beslan.

NEARY: Yes. And apparently he had something like 1,200, 1,400 followers. What does his death now mean?

Ms. MENDELSON: I think that this could have an enormous impact. I think it could change the balance of power in a lot of ways in the region. And here's how.

He was intent on taking violence and terror outside of Chechnya. He wanted a holy war. And he took this to downtown Moscow. He took it to other parts of the North Caucuses. Presumably that's going to be harder to do without him. And that will come as a great relief to people in that region.

But I'd say the situation inside Chechnya is still quite complicated. Ramzan Kadyrov, the Kremlin-appointed leader…

NEARY: I'm going to have to interrupt you. I'm very sorry, Sarah. We're running out of time. But thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. MENDELSON: Thank you.

NEARY: Sarah Mendelson is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. And this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.