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Russia vows terror fight, hits US view

MOSCOW -- Russia's top general threatened yesterday to strike terrorists ''in any region of the world," and the Kremlin offered a $10 million reward for information leading to the killing or capture of Chechnya's top rebel leaders.

Russian officials also expressed growing anger with critics of the Kremlin's policy in Chechnya and criticized the United States for its willingness to hold talks with Chechen separatists.

The announcements marked a show of resolve aimed at Russia's stunned residents, as well as Western countries President Vladimir V. Putin accuses of hindering its fight against terror, following three attacks that killed more than 400 people the past two weeks.

In a nationally televised meeting, Prosecutor General Vladimir Ustinov also briefed Putin on the investigation into the taking of more than 1,200 hostages in a school last week in the southern town of Beslan.

His was the first official acknowledgment that the number of hostages had been so high; the government initially said about 350 people were seized.

Colonel General Yuri Baluyevsky, chief of the general staff of Russia's armed forces, asserted Russia's right to strike terrorists beyond its borders.

''As for carrying out preventive strikes against terrorist bases . . . we will take all measures to liquidate terrorist bases in any region of the world," he told reporters.

Baluyevsky made his comments alongside NATO's supreme allied commander in Europe, General James Jones, after talks on Russia-NATO military cooperation, including antiterror efforts.

European Union officials reacted cautiously to Baluyevsky's statements, with spokeswoman Emma Udwin saying she could not be sure whether they represented government policy. Udwin said the 25-nation EU is against ''extra-judicial killings" in the form of preemptive strikes.

Russian leaders have previously claimed the right to attack terrorists beyond the country's borders, tacitly threatening neighboring Georgia that Moscow would pursue Chechen rebels allegedly being sheltered there. Two Russian agents were convicted this year for the February car bombing in Qatar that killed a Chechen rebel leader, Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev. Russia denied involvement in the assassination.

The Bush administration also has a policy of preemptive military action against terrorists.

NATO officials declined to comment.

The alliance released a statement with Russia stressing both sides' ''determination to strengthen and intensify common efforts to fight the scourge of terrorism."

Nationalist lawmaker Dmitry Rogozin told Ekho Moskvy radio the warning appeared to be an effort to ease fears of terrorism in Russia following the crashes of two planes, a Moscow suicide bombing, and the school seizure.

Anger over the school attack simmered in North Ossetia, the southern Russian region bordering Chechnya mourning the deaths of hundreds of children, parents, and teachers.

Regional President Alexander Dzasokhov promised a furious crowd of 1,000 that the local government would step down within two days and said he would follow suit if he could not fulfill the protesters' demands for an independent inquiry -- the first sign of officials being punished for failing to prevent the attack.

Yesterday's television broadcast of Ustinov's briefing was the first attempt by the government to give a formal account of the tragedy. The prosecutor said his information was based on interviews with witnesses and the one alleged attacker.

Ustinov said the approximately 30 attackers, including two women, had met in a forest early on Sept. 1 before heading to Middle School No. 1 in Beslan in a truck and two jeeps packed with weapons and ammunition.

People who had gathered to mark the first day of school were herded into the gym by the militants, some of whom voiced objections to seizing a school. Detainee Nur-Pashi Kulayev said the group's leader, who went by the name Colonel, shot one of the militants and said he would do the same to any other militants or hostages who did not show ''unconditional obedience."

Later that day, he detonated the explosives worn by two female attackers, killing them to enforce the lesson, Ustinov said.

One of the militants was stationed with his foot on a button that would set off the explosives, Ustinov said; if he lifted his foot, the bombs strung up around the school gymnasium would detonate, he said.

On Friday, the militants decided to change the arrangement of the explosives, and they appear to have set off one bomb by mistake, Ustinov said.

That sparked panic as hostages tried to flee and the attackers opened fire.

North Ossetian Deputy Health Minister Teimuraz Revazov said 329 were now confirmed dead in the school siege.

Russia's Federal Security Service offered a reward of $10 million for information that could help ''neutralize" Chechen rebel leaders Shamil Basayev and Aslan Maskhadov, whom officials have accused of masterminding last week's hostage crisis.

Maskhadov, the former president of Chechnya, denied any involvement in the school standoff, according to aides. There has been no word from Basayev, a longtime rebel warlord who had claimed involvement in bloody raids and hostage-takings in the past.

Basayev is believed to be hiding in Chechnya; Russian officials have sometimes reported that Maskhadov has left the country.

The global issue of terrorism drew Russia closer to the United States and other Western nations following the Sept. 11 attacks, when Putin expressed support for US antiterror efforts.

But since the attack in Beslan, Putin and other top officials have turned up the volume on their accusations that Western nations apply double standards and hinder Russia's fight against terrorism by questioning its policy in Chechnya.

Responding to a statement by State Department spokesman Richard Boucher, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said yesterday that ''we solve our internal problems ourselves, and there's no need to search for an American route to political normalization in Chechnya," Interfax reported.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Yakovenko also lashed out at the United States, saying talks with Chechens linked to rebel leaders are ''absolutely unacceptable."

''After all, we are talking about those individuals who stand behind bloody attacks by terrorists in Russia, which have drawn the indignation of the entire civilized word," Yakovenko said in a statement.

While joining condemnation of the school attack, the State Department said Tuesday that Moscow ultimately must hold political talks with rebellious Chechen leaders.

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