BENOI, Russia -- On a dirt track high in the Caucasus Mountains, along plunging gorges that split Chechnya from Dagestan, there is a cramped and filthy field hospital run by Chechen rebels. Into this structure, bathed Thursday morning in silver moonlight, walked Shamil Basayev.
The fugitive who carried out the worst terrorist attack in recent Russian history looked like any other man. Less so, actually. He was quite small. He had the fine, tapered fingers of a craftsman and the narrow face and sculptured nose of a nobleman. He wore bedroom slippers.
This was the man who terrorized all of Russia.
On June 14, Mr. Basayev, the descendant of mountain warriors, led 147 Chechen fighters on a raid into the Russian heartland. There Mr. Basayev and the comrades he held dearest -- almost all had grown up with him, prayed with him, attended mosque with him -- took vows to die in battle. Mr. Basayev tied a ribbon around his head. It was green, the color of Islam.
Before the day was over, the little band of Chechens had gunned down police officers and passersby going about their daily business on a weekday afternoon in the provincial town of Budyonnovsk. Those they didn't kill they took hostage.
For the next four days, Mr. Basayev and his men holed up in a hospital, where they held nearly 2,000 Russians hostage. Scores were killed in two failed rescue attempts before Mr. Basayev negotiated his escape overland back to Chechnya.
The bloody attack changed the course of the Chechen war. In telephone negotiations broadcast live on television, Mr. Basayev demanded and received a cease-fire and the first peace talks in seven months.
A man on the run
Now Mr. Basayev is a man on the run. He moves like a shadow from village to village in the rugged mountains southeast of the Chechen capital of Grozny, eluding a Russian manhunt and commanding Chechen special forces in a faltering war effort.
Inside the field hospital, Mr. Basayev chain-smoked Camels and spoke for five hours about the raid on Budyonnovsk, his dream of an independent Chechnya, and his frenetic existence as a fugitive warrior. He portrayed the Budyonnovsk raid as a legitimate military operation.
"The Russians have taken the war to our homeland, so why shouldn't we take the war to Russia?" he asked. He spoke softly, staring at the sunken ceiling of the flimsy field hospital as wisps of cigarette smoke curled upward.
"I wanted the Russian people to know exactly what war feels like. I wanted them to feel our pain. They needed to know that this war is not an abstract notion. I wanted to wake them up."
If the peace talks fail or Russian forces try to seize more Chechen territory, Mr. Basayev said, there will be more raids. He called Budyonnovsk a "trial run." He and his men are training now for more operations, he said.
"Budyonnovsk showed how vulnerable Russia is, how easy it is for us to attack them where they are weakest," he said. "The Russians call this terrorism. I call it sabotage. This is war, after all.
"For 5 1/2 months, we tried to fight them openly and honestly. But they used scorched-earth tactics, everything but a nuclear bomb. So now we are fighting back in our own way."
Mr. Basayev said he regretted that 123 people died in Budyonnovsk, some murdered by his men and others killed in bungled rescue attempts. "But I also regret that thousands of Chechens have been killed," he said.
Among those killed were civilians named Basayev.
On June 4, just 10 days before the raid on Budyonnovsk, 11 of Mr. Basayev's relatives were killed in a Russian bombing raid on his cousin's house in his home village of Vedeno. Among the dead were six children, including his 5-month-old nephew.
Planning for the Budyonnovsk raid was under way at the time, Mr. Basayev said. But now he sought not only tactical and political advantage, but also vengeance.
"At that moment I swore I would kill Russian pilots wherever I found them," he said.
In Budyonnovsk, six pilots fell into his hands, he said. He called it a sign from Allah. All six were shot dead.
Recounting the raid
On this night, Mr. Basayev wore a souvenir from Budyonnovsk: a pair of thin slippers from the hospital his men had occupied. He also wore the same clothes as during the siege: a blue-and-white striped undershirt and camouflage fatigue pants.
For an hour, Mr. Basayev described the raid at Budyonnovsk:
The operation had been planned for weeks, but only the men involved knew about it. Not even the president of the breakaway Chechen republic, Dzhokhar Dudayev, was told beforehand, according to Mr. Basayev.
Two fighters shaved their beards and dressed as Russian policemen. They drove a Lada, a ubiquitous Russian-made sedan, painted to resemble a police car. Behind them followed three large military supply trucks driven by clean-shaven fighters dressed to resemble Russian interior troops. Hidden in the rear of the trucks were the rest of the Chechens.
The convoy followed the route used by Russian convoys leaving the war zone. At each checkpoint, the fighters dressed as policemen said they were escorting truckloads of dead Russian soldiers. Most soldiers and policemen let them pass. Others demanded small bribes, which were paid.
Mr. Basayev's goal was Moscow. He intended to storm the Kremlin, he said. Instead, the convoy ran into trouble at Budyonnovsk, just 70 miles north of the Chechen border.
A Russian police officer waved them down and demanded a bribe to let them pass. The Chechens in the first car ignored him and drove off. The police pursued. They were soon joined by four other police cars. They cut off the convoy and ordered it to drive to the local police station.
There, the occupants of all five police cars demanded bribes. One bribe, they would have paid, Mr. Basayev said. But five was outrageous. The Chechens got into their vehicles and began to drive away.
The police tried to stop them. A firefight broke out. It spread into the center of town, where the Chechens went on a rampage, firing at everyone and rounding up hostages.
They decided to take refuge in the local hospital, where they found more hostages and withstood the two botched Russian raids. As the world watched on live television, Mr. Basayev negotiated his way out of the siege in phone conversations with Russian Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin.
The slipshod way the communications were set up -- along with the ease with which Chechen gun men sailed through Russian checkpoints -- convinced Mr. Basayev that Russia will soon collapse out of sheer incompetence.
A nation near collapse
To reach Mr. Chernomyrdin, Mr. Basayev said, he had to book a call through an operator in nearby Stavropol. From there he was routed to the office of a junior minister, who passed him to a deputy who reached Mr. Chernomyrdin's private secretary, who found the prime minister.
"Would it have been too much trouble for them to set up two satellite phones?" Mr. Basayev asked.
Mr. Basayev refused to leave without the bodies of 16 Chechens killed in the standoff. He was given a refrigerated truck, along with 123 "volunteer" hostages whom he released upon arriving safely back in Chechnya, trailed but unmolested by enraged Russian special forces troops. The 16 Chechen dead were buried in a fresh martyrs' cemetery by the track that leads to Benoi.
Mr. Basayev was stunned by the indecision and ineptitude of Russian politicians and generals during the siege, he said. He spoke of them with contempt, although he did describe the Russian commandos as "well-trained men, even brave men, led by unprofessionals."
Of Mr. Chernomyrdin, he said: "I was surprised by him. I didn't think there was even one sober-minded person in the entire government."