Tuesday, March 08, 2005

The New York Times > International > Europe > Russian Forces, in Raid, Kill Leader of Chechnya Separatists

The New York Times > International > Europe > Russian Forces, in Raid, Kill Leader of Chechnya Separatists
"Russian Forces Kill Leader of Chechnya Separatists
By STEVEN LEE MYERS

Published: March 8, 2005
OSCOW, March 8 - Russian special forces killed the leader of Chechnya's separatists in a raid today that gave the Kremlin a rare victory in a bloody war that has killed tens of thousands and spawned a wave of terrorist attacks across Russia in recent years.

The slain separatist, Aslan Maskhadov, who from hiding led thousands of fighters following Russia's second invasion of the republic in 1999, died in a bunker beneath a house in an outwardly peaceful village, Tolstoy Yurt, only 12 miles from the region's capital, Grozny, according to Russian officials and news accounts.

His death is akin to the capture of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, depriving insurgents of their political and symbolic leader, although it remains uncertain what effect the slaying will have on those still determined to resist Russian forces in Chechnya.

While Mr. Maskhadov, who was 53, nominally commanded Chechnya's fighters, he appeared to have lost influence over Russia's most-wanted man, Shamil Basayev, the rebel commander who has claimed responsibility for the worst terrorist attacks, including the siege of a theater in Moscow in 2002 that killed 129 and a school in Beslan last September that killed at least 339, half of them school children.

President Vladimir V. Putin appeared on television with the director of the Federal Security Service, Nikolai P. Patrushev, who told him that his forces had killed Mr. Maskhadov and arrested four associates. In brief, unemotional remarks, Mr. Putin simply asked Mr. Patrushev to confirm the identification of Mr. Maskhadov's body and to submit of list of those involved in the raid for medals.

"There is still a lot of work to do there," he said, referring to Chechnya. "We have to build up our forces to protect the people of the republic and citizens of all Russia from the bandits."

Mr. Maskhadov's imminent capture or death has been reported before, but officials showed little doubt that it was Mr. Maskhadov who died in the raid. NTV showed graphic images of a corpse that resembled him. The body lay in a pool of blood, bare-chested, his arms outstretched and entangled in his shirt sleeves. There was what appeared a bullet hole beneath his left eye.

One of his most prominent aides, Akhmed Zakayev, said he had also received confirmation of Mr. Maskhadov's death from people inside Chechnya. "It is just one more political assassination," he said in a telephone interview from London, where he has received political asylum.

He cited the deaths of Chechnya's first post-Soviet president, Dzhokhar Dudayev, who was killed by Russian forces during the first war in 1996, and his predecessor, Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, who died in a car bombing in February 2004 while in exile in the Persian Gulf emirate of Qatar. A court there convicted two Russian secret agents and sentenced them to life in prison, though they later released them to the Russian authorities.

"The ordinary people of Chechnya are being killed every day because they disagree with the federal authorities," he said, "as are the people they have elected."

Mr. Zakayev said the separatist movement's leaders - now in exile or in hiding - would under the republic's former constitution elected an interim leader, as they did following Mr. Dudayev's death.

Dmitri V. Trenin, deputy director of the Carnegie Moscow Center who was one of the authors of "Russia's Restless Frontier," a book published last year that examined the conflict's ramifications, said Mr. Maskhadov's death might not change events on the ground significantly, given that his leadership had become increasingly symbolic and that the rebel commander Mr. Basayev remained at large.

Still he called it a "political victory and a moral victory" for the Kremlin. "I think it's significant for Mr. Putin, first of all," Mr. Trenin said. "He can produce evidence that the antiterrorist operation in Chechnya is yielding results. He needed that, especially after Beslan."

The Russians considered Mr. Maskhadov a terrorist, not a rebel leader, and accused him of masterminding many of the attacks that have struck from the Caucasus in southern Russia to the heart of Moscow itself in recent years, killing hundreds of civilians in a theater, at a rock concert, on the subway, aboard trains and passenger airliners.

After the siege of Middle School No. 1 in Beslan, a small city in North Ossetia, the authorities offered a reward of $10 million for information leading to the arrest of Mr. Maskhadov or Mr. Basayev. It was not immediately clear whether the reward would be paid now that Mr. Maskhadov had been found and killed.

Mr. Maskhadov, for his part, had denied involvement in the worst of the attacks in messages he communicated through his envoys in Europe and the United States or through the Internet.

He denounced the siege in Beslan and vowed in statements to prosecute Mr. Basayev. Earlier this year, he was reported to have offered a monthlong cease-fire, which ended on Feb. 23. Attacks in Chechnya did seem to slow, but Russian officials denounced the gesture as a stunt, refusing, as before, to hold any negotiations with him or any other separatist leaders.

Officials provided few details on the raid, which was not surprising since it involved officers of the F.S.B., the successor to the K.G.B., who even afterwards were shown on television still wearing black masks.

Maj. Gen. Ilya Shabalkin, who first announced his death, said in a telephone interview that Mr. Maskhadov had been hiding in a bunker beneath a house in Tolstoy Yurt, while his four associates were outside.

He suggested that the agents intended to arrest Mr. Maskhadov, but that he had resisted. "He was hiding in the bunker," he said. "So the bunker had to be blown up. Apparently he was shell-shocked, but tried to shoot back."

He said no Russian forces had been hurt.

Mr. Maskhadov was born on Sept. 21, 1951, in Kazakhstan, where Stalin had ordered the deportation of most of the Chechen population during World War II, an act of paranoia that carries heavy symbolism among all Chechens to this day. He served most of his life in the Soviet Army, rising to the rank of colonel and serving in Soviet-occupied Hungary and later in Lithuania as the Soviet Union began to fall apart.

After Chechnya, a small, mountainous Muslim republic on Russia's southern border, declared its independence in 1991, he resigned his commission and became commander of the armed forces of an unrecognized country. He remained military leader during the first Chechen war, from 1994 to 1996, when he commanded the daring assault to retake Grozny from Russian troops.

President Boris N. Yeltsin then negotiated an end to the war, leaving Chechnya with de-facto independence. In January 1997, he was elected president, defeating the man whose name is still almost always linked to his, Mr. Basayev. By 1999, with the republic roiled by lawlessness, Mr. Basayev launched an attack on neighboring Dagestan, and Russian forces poured in again, driving the rebellious leaders from Grozny and eventually most of the republic.

It is a measure of how deeply troubled and chaotic the republic is that despite the presence of tens of thousands of Russian and pro-Moscow Chechen forces, Mr. Maskhadov was able to hide - for how long is not clear - in a village in the center of Chechnya itself."