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Anger At U.S. Chechen Policy

Russia castigated the United States on Wednesday for its willingness to hold talks with Chechens agitating for independence and suggested the issue could harm bilateral relations, the Interfax news agency reported.

Also Wednesday, a top Russian general warned the military will strike "terrorist bases in any region of the world," while authorities offered a $10.3 million reward for information leading to two Chechen rebel leaders blamed for last week's deadly raid on a school.

Meanwhile, investigators said an accidental explosion appears to have triggered the bloody climax to last week's standoff, in which more than 350 people were killed.

While condemning the terrorist attack, the State Department said Tuesday that Russia ultimately must hold political talks with rebellious Chechen leaders who are determined to break away from the Russian Federation.

In response, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said "we solve our internal problems ourselves and there's no need to search for an American route to political normalization in Chechnya," according to Interfax.

In a nationally televised meeting, Prosecutor-General Vladimir Ustinov also briefed President Vladimir Putin on the investigation into the taking of more than 1,200 hostages in a school last week in the southern Russian 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 had been seized. A regional official later said the number had been 1,181.

Alexander Dzasokhov, the president of the region of North Ossetia, home to Beslan, meanwhile, said that the regional government would step down within two days, the first sign of officials being punished for failing to prevent the attack.

Russia's Federal Security Service offered a reward of $10.3 million — its biggest ever offered — 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 in North Ossetia, a region bordering Chechnya.

Maskhadov, the former president of Chechnya, had 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.

Ustinov said 326 hostages were killed and 727 wounded in the attack, which ended Friday in a wave of explosions and gunfire. He said 210 bodies had been identified, and forensic workers were trying to identify 32 body fragments. The death toll could rise, Ustinov said.

The authorities appeared to be backpedaling from their previous insistence on describing the attack as the work of international terrorists.

On Monday, Putin repeated investigators' allegations that 10 of the attackers were of Arab descent and he denied that the hostage-taking was linked to Russia's policy in Chechnya.

However, Ustinov said nothing about Arabs in his briefing. Asked about the silence, a Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told The Associated Press that forensic experts were still working to identify the terrorists "and until that work is finished, it's impossible to tell."

"According to preliminary data, there were Arabs," he insisted. "No one is denying the presence of Arabs."

Fridinsky also contradicted Putin by saying the attackers' demands — which authorities did not reveal with any clarity during the crisis — were tied to the war in Chechnya.

Ustinov said the approximately 30 attackers, including two women, had met in a forest early Sept. 1 before heading to 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, in order 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.

On Tuesday night, Russians got a chilling glimpse of conditions inside the school when NTV television broadcast images that the station said were recorded by the assailants, presumably for an accounting to their leaders.

Hundreds of hostages were shown seated in the school's cramped gym. Many had their hands behind their heads. The wood floor was stained with blood.

Football-sized bundles of explosives were hanging from a basketball hoop. One attacker stood among the hostages with a boot on what NTV said was a book rigged with a detonator.

Last month, the United States granted asylum to the Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov's foreign minister, Ilyas Akhmadov. Interfax quoted Lavrov as saying that Akhmadov's involvement in terrorist activities was "well-known" to the Americans.

Meanwhile, Britain's Guardian newspaper reports the prominent members of the U.S. foreign policy establishment — including many who have supported tough military action in the U.S. war on terrorism — belong to a group pushing a peaceful settlement in Chechnya.

The American Committee for Peace in Chechnya has condemned terrorist attacks. But it has also faulted the Kremlin for failing to advance a peace plan and criticized Russia's human rights record..

The group's membership includes Elliott Abrams, an official on President Bush's National Security Council; Kenneth Adelman, a Reagan-era State Department official; Sept. 11 commission chairman Thomas Kean; Weekly Standard editor William Kristol; Pentagon adviser Richard Perle; former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and ex-CIA director James Woolsey.