MOSCOW - Russian lawmakers passed legislative amendments Friday that would severely curb news coverage of anti-terrorist operations and prohibit the media from carrying rebel statements - a legislative step officials called increasingly urgent in light of last week's hostage crisis.
The hostage-takers "had elaborated a media plan," Press Minister Mikhail Lesin said in an interview published in the Izvestia daily Friday.
"They were very well prepared from the point of view of the Russian mass media, journalists and newsmakers. And they used this situation very well."
Meanwhile, a Chechen website published what it claimed to be a statement from the main Chechen rebel leader, Shamil Basayev, assuming responsibility for directing the theater raid. Moscow has alleged that he planned the attack with the approval of rebel Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov.
Basayev excoriated the international community for commiserating with Russia but not the Chechen victims of the war. He said that the Chechens would continue to carry the war into Russia, and that subsequent attacks would not aim at taking hostages but at "exacting maximum harm to the enemy."
Basayev also said he was resigning from all the posts he held under Maskhadov and apologized to the Chechen president for not informing him of the planned Moscow raid. That would back up the claim of Maskhadov aide Akhmed Zakayev, who said the president had not known about the planned attack.
The statement's authenticity could not be confirmed. A top aide to President Vladimir Putin, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, repeated the Kremlin's assertion that Maskhadov was behind the attack and said Basayev was trying to protect him.
"Basayev is trying to shield Maskhadov from blame, to save him for further political games," the ITAR-Tass news agency quoted Yastrzhembsky as saying.
Russia's lower house of parliament gave preliminary approval to the media amendments on Oct. 23, just hours before dozens of heavily armed attackers burst into a Moscow theater and took more than 800 people hostage. Special forces stormed the theater three days later, killing 41 of the attackers. At least 119 of the hostages died, the vast majority being felled by a fentanyl compound that the troops used to incapacitate the terrorists.
Up to 172 former hostages, including six children, remained hospitalized Friday, said Lyubov Zhomova, a spokeswoman for the Moscow health committee. Some 479 have been discharged, she said.
The new amendments were approved by a vote of 231-106, with one abstention. The changes, which must still be approved by the upper house and signed by Putin, would prohibit the media from distributing information that hinders counter-terrorist operations, reveals tactics used in such operations or reveals information about people involved in them.
They would also ban the publication or broadcast of "statements by individuals that are aimed at hindering a counter-terrorist operation and/or justifying resistance to a counter-terrorist operation" and other "propaganda or justification of extremist activity."
Speaking in favor of the amendments on Friday, centrist legislator Vyacheslav Volodin said that "the journalistic community should take more responsibility."
"Things should not be allowed to be taken too far," he said.
But human rights activists said the new law could further stifle debate of the war in Chechnya - and keep Russians from being informed about the conflict.
"Everything we're discussing here today can now fall under the rubric of hindering a counter-terrorist operation," said Oleg Panfilov, director of the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, who took part in a human rights forum Friday on Russia's conduct during the hostage crisis.
Coverage of the war in Chechnya is already severely restricted, and it is almost impossible for journalists to work in the region except in close coordination with the military.
But last week's hostage crisis unfolded squarely in the media glare. Most television stations went live for hours at a time, radio stations broadcast cellphone conversations with hostages, and many TV channels showed top officials arriving and departing from the emergency headquarters set up next to the theater.
The hostage-takers even invited two crews from NTV television inside the theater. But the interview given by the attackers' bandleaders was not broadcast in full, in spite of the attackers' demands. A hastily arranged cellphone conversation between the station and one of the hostage-takers was abruptly cut off before it could begin; the anchor said the line had been cut, and no attempt appeared to be made to restore it.
Lesin expressed gratitude to the Russian media for its "understanding and support" during the crisis and said the media had played a positive role.
Also Friday, the lower house voted 288-1, with two abstentions, to prohibit returning terrorists' bodies to their families or revealing their place of burial.
Putin's representative in parliament, Alexander Kotenkov, said the amendment was a logical extension of existing law under which relatives of convicts sentenced to death are not told of the burial place.
"A terrorist is not just a murderer, he or she is a member of a political organization pursuing ideological goals. So the fact of his or her burial is also a political act that should be prevented from the start," Kotenkov said.
Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov renewed calls for Denmark to extradite Zakayev, a foreign emissary for Maskhadov, a rebel leader who is also Chechnya's elected president. Zakayev was detained in Copenhagen this week after attending a two-day conference on Chechnya.
Ivanov said Russian prosecutors had sent all the necessary documents concerning Moscow's allegations against Zakayev to Copenhagen.
Police continued to comb Moscow for suspected terrorists and their collaborators. A 38-year-old Ukrainian man carrying three grenades was detained in a Moscow subway station, the Moscow Interior Department press office said.
In Germany, prosecutors opened a preliminary inquiry into the hostage-taking under a new law allowing authorities to move against foreign terrorist organizations that threatened German citizens, said Frauke Scheuten, a spokeswoman for the prosecutor's office. Two Germans were among the Moscow hostages.