Ahmed Zakayev, former Chechen deputy prime minister, told Der Spiegel news magazine Maskhadov had in fact tried to do everything to bring the siege to a peaceful end.

Following the bloodbath in Beslan, Russia's FSB intelligence has offered up to $10.3 million for information leading to the "neutralisation" of Maskhadov.

The Chechen resistance chief is wanted in connection with the school siege in North Ossetia and earlier attacks, including the bombing of two Russian jetliners last month with 90 dead.

According to the London-based Zakayev, Maskhadov had a number of telephone conversations with leading Russian politicians after the hostage crisis began.

They included North Ossetian President Alexander Dzasokhov and the former president of Ingushetia, Ruslan Aushev, who helped negotiate the release of 26 hostages from the school.

'Terrible blow'

The school siege ended with the
death of hundreds, mostly pupils

Maskhadov had agreed to do everything to de-escalate the crisis, and Zakayev said he himself had wanted to travel to Russia. However, events in Beslan went out of control.

As shooting began, the captors phoned Aushev making it clear they were surprised by the apparent storming of the school, Zakayev told Der Spiegel.

The captors' action was also "a terrible blow" for all people in Chechnya as it had "discredited our idea of independence", Zakayev said.

He said Russian President Vladimir Putin was only trying to divert attention from the core conflict in Chechnya by calling Maskhadov a "child murderer" and blaming "international terrorism".