July 29, 2005 — -- Guerrilla Chechen leader Shamil Basayev, the mastermind behind last year's Beslan school massacre and the 2002 Moscow theater hostage-taking, is one of the most wanted terrorists in the world.
With a $10 million bounty on his head and the Kremlin on a massive manhunt, Basayev spoke candidly with Russian journalist Andrei Babitsky about his motives and what he seeks to accomplish through terrorism. Babitsky, in turn, brought the interview to ABC News' "Nightline."
Basayev admitted he was a "terrorist" but said that each Russian had to feel the impact of war before it would stop in Chechnya.
"Officially, over 40,000 of our children have been killed and tens of thousands mutilated. Is anyone saying anything about that?" Basayev asked. "Responsibility is with the whole Russian nation, which through its silent approval gives a 'yes' [gives its consent]," he added.
In 2004, Chechen gunmen held more than 1,000 hostages for nearly three days in a school in the Russian town of Beslan. The raid ended in gunfire and explosions, killing more than 330 people, mostly children.
In their hideout, the rebels live in primitive conditions, eating mainly "instant soups and canned food" and sleeping on barren ground.
Despite the tough living conditions, Basayev aims to end what he calls "the genocide of the Chechen people" by Russia.
"I admit, I'm a bad guy, a bandit, a terrorist … but what would you call them?" he said of the Russians. "If they are the keepers of constitutional order, if they are anti-terrorists, then I spit on all these agreements and nice words."
Basayev also questioned the cause of the crash of two Russian airliners in August 2004, saying "Who says they'd been blown up? Where are the facts that they'd been blown up? Why didn't they blow them up? Why doesn't it occur to you that they shot them down?"
Russia has argued that the two planes were brought down by suicide bombers, killing all 89 people aboard.
Asked if a Beslan-type attack could occur again, Basayev said, "Of course they can … as long as the genocide of the Chechen nation continues, as long as this mess continues, anything can happen."
Among other attacks, Basayev has been linked to a 2002 hostage-taking at a Moscow theater that left 170 people dead, a 2003 suicide attack in the Moscow subway and a 2003 double suicide bombing at a Moscow rock concert.
The Kremlin sent troops into Chechnya in 1994 to crush its separatist leadership, but withdrew after a bloody and bitter two-year war that left the region de facto independent.
Russian forces returned in 1999 in an effort to crack down on Chechen rebels whom they blamed for apartment-building blasts that killed 300 people.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch accused Russian forces of "a crime against humanity" in March, noting local human rights groups estimate up to 5,000 people have gone missing in Chechnya since 1999.
Something Basayev stresses again and again.
"It's the Russkies who are the terrorists," he said. "There's a struggle going on for our national independence."
The Kremlin denounced ABC's decision to broadcast the exclusive interview. It issued a written statement, which was read on "Nightline," saying that the interview "runs counter to the spirit of Russian-American partnership in our joint fight against the global threat of terrorism."
Richard Harris contributed to this report.