Law enforcement forces have detained four Chechens who were allegedly planning to seize a school in southern Russia in an attack similar to last September's hostage-taking in Beslan, a top Russian prosecutor said Wednesday.
Deputy Prosecutor General Nikolai Shepel told reporters that the four, detained in Chechnya last month, were among 11 Chechens plotting to seize an elementary school in Ingushetia if the Sept. 1 attack on Beslan's School No. 1 had failed.
The group's leader, whom he identified as Aslanbek Khatuyev, and the other members are still at large, Shepel said. He said at least one member had attended the school that the group was targeting.
Ingushetia borders war-ravaged Chechnya as well as North Ossetia, where Beslan is located. Shepel said the group had targeted the Ingush school to fan ethnic animosity in Russia's tense North Caucasus region.
Shepel is chief prosecutor in the trial of Nur-Pashi Kulayev, the only surviving suspect from the Beslan seizure, which killed more than 330 people, more than half of them children. The trial began Tuesday and is set to resume Thursday.
Survivors of the Beslan attack have criticized what they say is the slow pace of the investigation into how 32 heavily armed militants were so easily able to seize the school. Many say Kulayev's trial is meant to mask deeper problems of endemic corruption in regional law enforcement and government.
Authorities have regularly announced the detention or seizure of people who allegedly helped the Beslan attackers, though details are usually scarce.
In March, Shepel announced the arrest of four people and the killing of five others suspected of helping stage the Beslan raid. Also in March, Chechen authorities announced the arrest of 12 militants they said were ordered to carry out a diversionary action during the Beslan seizure to distract law-enforcement agencies' attention.
A notorious Chechen warlord, Shamil Basayev, has claimed responsibility for the school seizure.
Also Wednesday, the spokesman for the Russian campaign against rebels in the North Caucasus said a Kuwaiti militant who was an al-Qaida emissary to Chechnya has been killed by security forces in neighboring Dagestan.
The alleged militant, who went by the single name Jarah, was killed Tuesday near the Chechen border, said Maj.-Gen. Ilya Shabalkin.
In a statement, Shabalkin said Jarah was an al-Qaida emissary in Chechnya and had close connections with members of the Muslim Brotherhood, an outlawed Egyptian Islamic movement, and of Al-Haramain, a Saudi charity that the kingdom's government dissolved last year amid U.S. suspicion that it was bankrolling al-Qaida.
He said Jarah had been a middleman for the funding of Chechen rebels by foreign terror groups and had helped rebel leaders including Basayev organize "many large terrorist acts." He did not name any specific attacks.
Russia authorities say Chechen rebels have been financed by Islamic terrorist groups abroad and that many Arab mercenaries have fought alongside the rebels.
According to Shabalkin, whose claims could not be independently confirmed, Jarah received training in Taliban terror camps and was adept at preparing bombs and poisons. He said that Jarah had spent time in the Pankisi Gorge, a region near Chechnya in neighboring Georgia, and in Azerbaijan.
There, he said, the Kuwaiti citizen and unidentified associates received money from "foreign terrorist centers" and sent it along to the North Caucasus.
Jarah also frequented Chechnya, where he took part in attacks, trained militants in explosives and taught them extremist Muslim ideology, as well as training female suicide bombers, Shabalkin's statement said.
Authorities in Chechnya say many attacks there have been carried out by militants entering from Dagestan.
Russian and regional officials met Wednesday to discuss plans to base a Russian military unit in Dagestan's Botlikh district, an area near the Chechen border where rebels seized villages in 1999 fighting that was one of the catalysts for the Kremlin's decision to send troops into Chechnya for the second time in a decade.
Russian forces had withdrawn from Chechnya following a devastating 1994-1996 war that left the region with de-facto independence.
MIKE ECKEL, Associated Press Writer
On the photo: Nikolai Shepel