MOSCOW - From the start of the Russian hostage crisis, the Kremlin has insisted that the Chechen guerrillas who seized more than 750 people in a Moscow theater were agents of international terror groups.
Yet, a week after 50 Chechen raiders infiltrated the theater and days after a Russian military assault brought the incident to a violent close, government officials have offered no evidence to support their assertions of foreign backing for the hostage-takers.
Those claims, it seems, were part of Russia's effort to cast the war in Chechnya as a fight against Islamic extremists rather than as a bid to crush a separatist rebellion in the Caucasus.
But analysts outside of Russia's government, as well as many Chechens, say there is foreign support for the Chechen rebellion - even if not as extensive as the Kremlin contends.
"Islamic organizations have given the Chechens big assistance," said Alexei Malashenko, an expert on Chechnya at the Carnegie Moscow Center. "These ties exist but they should not be exaggerated, because the roots of the Chechen conflict, the roots of the hostage crisis, reside in Chechnya itself."
It is still not clear who planned and organized the hostage-taking in the heart of Moscow, an incident that led to the deaths of at least 170 people. But the Kremlin is using the episode to justify its policy of refusing to negotiate with Chechen resistance figures. And Russian officials point to the alleged foreign sponsorship of the hostage-taking as the basis for a more aggressive military posture abroad.
Col. Ilya Shabalkin, an official of the Russian Federal Security Service, or FSB, stationed in Chechnya, described the war as a struggle against the forces that launched last year's attacks against New York and Washington.
"The threat to the Russian Federation, the threat to the United States and the threat to Europe is coming from a quite formal organization of Islamic terrorism," Shabalkin said last week in a heavily guarded military barracks in the Chechen capital of Grozny. "They are brothers in the Muslim world."
Shabalkin, whose comments came two days before the hostage-taking, said about 200 of the estimated 1,200 separatist fighters in Chechnya were foreigners, mostly Arabs from Persian Gulf states or Turks.
He asserted that the war in Chechnya was being financed and directed by radical sympathizers in Saudi Arabia and other gulf states. Shabalkin did not name any specific organizations or say how much foreign money Chechens receive. But he claimed that a single Chechen warlord had been paid $50 million for maintaining a militia that was fighting the Russians.
"Can you imagine $50 million in Chechnya?" he asked. "For here, it is absolutely huge money."
Such claims may be exaggerated, independent analysts say. But few doubt that there is a lot of foreign financial support from Islamic groups for Chechen insurgents.
Malashenko said estimates range from $10 million to $200 million a year, but "nobody really knows."
And there is plenty of evidence that foreign fighters have fought alongside the Chechen rebels over the past 10 years.
Aukai Collins, who was born in Hawaii, joined the Chechen rebels during Chechnya's first war for independence from 1994 to 1996, as described in his 2001 book, My Jihad. Zacarias Moussaoui, the French-born man of Moroccan descent who has been charged with being the "20th hijacker" in the Sept. 11 attacks, fought in Chechnya in 1996.
Foreign Muslims continue to be drawn to the conflict. During a battle Oct. 6-8, Shabalkin said, Russian forces killed six members of a rebel reconnaissance patrol south of the Chechen village of Salazi, about 15 miles southwest of Grozny. Five carried foreign passports - two from Germany, three from Turkey.
All five had recent visas for the Republic of Georgia. Russian officials suspect that the five entered Chechnya through Georgia's Pankisi Gorge, a cleft in the southern flank of the Caucasus Mountains that climbs toward the range's snowcapped peaks and the Chechen border.
One fighter, Tarek Boughdir, a 40-year-old German citizen living in Shoerndorf, in Bavaria, had a paper folded in his passport. Under the English word Testament, he wrote, in German: "This is to express that dying in the name of Allah means life in Paradise. Allah, let me become a Shahid [a martyr for Islam]. And forgive my sin."
Another of the dead fighters, Tarik Algin, 26, who had a Turkish passport, had a tourist visa for Pakistan, valid for February 2000. Many Islamic fighters who trained in camps in Afghanistan, including those run by al-Qaida, entered Afghanistan illegally across the border with Pakistan.
Chechen villagers refused to bury the foreigners in their cemetery.
"Chechens as a nation don't like foreigners," Shabalkin said. "So, it's difficult for foreign contract killers. They can't come into a village. People will recognize they are not local."
Aslan Maskhadov, the rebel leader, said in an interview posted Oct. 23 on a pro-Chechen Web site that about 200 foreign fighters were in Chechnya at any given time.
"Defending our faith and freedom, many of them have become Shahids," he said. "The Chechens will always remember them."
Maskhadov said the claim that the Chechens are part of a global terror coalition is "nonsense." He said he had never heard of al-Qaida before Sept. 11, 2001, and didn't know of any fighters with links to the group.
"I declare with all my responsibility that no terrorist acts have ever taken place and been planned on the territory of Chechnya," he said.
But there is evidence that radical Islamic leaders were interested in supporting the Chechen cause. The Wall Street Journal reported this year that Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian doctor who became Osama bin Laden's senior lieutenant, headed for Chechnya in 1996 to establish a new base for his Islamic Jihad movement.
Before Zawahiri could reach Chechnya, he was arrested by Russian police and spent six months in jail for entering the country without a visa.
Rustam Kaliyev, an adviser to the Kremlin's representative on human rights in Chechnya, says that Chechnya's terrorism is home-grown, though nurtured by foreign sources.
Kaliyev, 24, who is Chechen, divides Chechen resistance fighters into two groups - warlords, and victims of the Russian military. The warlords rose to power during the first Chechen war against Russia, and later turned to robbery, kidnapping and extortion.
Kaliyev said the groups that Putin refers to as "international terrorists" are called "bandits" by the Chechen population, and make their living by war.
"They are groups of crazy gunmen," Kaliyev said, "murderers who also killed a lot of Chechen women, old men, the Chechen police and officials from the Chechen administration."
"And, of course, they are in favor of the war to go on and on," he said. "Because it's only the war that keeps them famous, and preserves their authority in their country."
Among the second group, Kaliyev said, are Chechens who have been persecuted by the Russians. Many have seen their sons, brothers or fathers hauled away by Russian troops, only to find them dead a few days later.
"They are not organized," he said. "They do not participate in the combat actions every day. They make sporadic attacks, and speak up from time to time."
Kaliyev said that Movsar Barayev, who led the guerrillas in Moscow, was a warlord. As for the sponsor and organizer of the raid, Kaliyev said that Putin might be right to suspect foreign influences.
"They may not be al-Qaida or they can be al-Qaida," he said. "But they are groups which are now called international terrorists."
Shabalkin, the FSB colonel, denied that widespread human rights violations by Russian troops have fed the Chechen conflict.
"It's not because the Russian military offended someone, some eight or 10 families," that Chechens become fighters, he said. "It's because of religious and ideological ideas."
Russian soldiers have committed crimes during military actions, including "cleansing operations" during which villages are sealed off and troops conduct house-to-house searches, Shabalkin said. "Like all humans, they make mistakes," he said. But "99 percent of this is just rubbish," he insisted.
Some peace advocates had pinned their hopes for a negotiated settlement on Maskhadov, the Chechen president, who was seen as perhaps the only Chechen leader not regarded as a warlord. But Barayev, the guerrilla leader who led the hostage- taking in Moscow, was quoted in London's Sunday Times as saying that he was under Maskhadov's command.
Maskhadov also failed to clearly condemn the theater takeover. That failure to denounce the hostage-taking "testifies that he has unfortunately become part of this," Kaliyev said.
Malashenko, of the Carnegie Moscow Center, still holds out hope that Maskhadov will come out with a clear denunciation of the guerrillas in Moscow. If he does, the political scientist said, he might still be a credible figure with whom Russia can negotiate.
Malashenko said the hostage crisis had created an opportunity for peace. By beating the terrorists - domestic or international - who held the theater, Putin has new stature, he said.
"That's why, from the top, he can propose to the Chechens something new."