Chechen President Is Slain

The death of Aslan Maskhadov, a relative moderate, dims hopes for peace with Russia.

By David Holley

Los Angeles Times

March 9, 2005

MOSCOW — Chechen separatist leader Aslan Maskhadov was killed in a Russian military attack Tuesday, a slaying likely to end any chance for a negotiated peace in the war-torn southern Russian republic.

Maskhadov, 53, who served as Chechnya's president during a period of self-rule in the late 1990s, headed the anti-Russia Chechen resistance.

He was viewed by Moscow as a terrorist, but he was also recognized as the only Chechen guerrilla leader moderate enough to strike a deal with the Kremlin yet influential enough to make it stick with rebel fighters.

Moscow had accused Maskhadov and more radical guerrilla leader Shamil Basayev of ordering the takeover of a school last year in the southern Russian town of Beslan, in which at least 326 hostages died. Maskhadov denied any involvement; Basayev claimed responsibility.

It was never clear whether Maskhadov exercised control over Basayev, who now appears positioned to dominate the rebel movement.

Russian television Tuesday showed a body identified as that of Maskhadov: gray-bearded, bare-chested and lying in a pool of blood, his arms spread.

Federal Security Service chief Nikolai P. Patrushev spoke to Russian President Vladimir V. Putin of the incident in a scene broadcast on television.

"A special operation was carried out by us in the village of Tolstoy-Yurt as a result of which the international terrorist and leader of the rebel group Aslan Maskhadov was killed," Patrushev said. "The body is in the hands of Federal Security Service investigators."

There were contradictory reports, however, over how Maskhadov died and assertions that authorities had meant to take him alive, raising questions about whether the operation had been botched.

The village of Tolstoy-Yurt, 12 miles north of the Chechen capital of Grozny, is in an area largely controlled by Russian and pro-Moscow Chechen forces. Federal and local Chechen forces were directed by a recently captured guerrilla to the house where Maskhadov was hiding, Chechen First Deputy Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov told the Russian news agency Itar-Tass.

Kadyrov said a $10.8-million reward offered for information on Maskhadov's whereabouts had not been paid, apparently because the information was not provided voluntarily. Kadyrov added, however, that the offer still stood for information leading to Basayev.

Supporters of Putin's Chechnya policy, which focuses on crushing the rebels militarily while giving local autonomy to a pro-Kremlin Chechen government, predicted that Maskhadov's death would lead to a collapse of rebel strength.

"The rebels and bandits have lost their living banner. They lost their symbol," Taus Dzhabrailov, chairman of the State Council of Chechnya, said in a telephone interview from Grozny. "People in Chechnya can see how the resistance base is diminishing here. Now that Maskhadov is gone, I think the process of resolving the conflict will be speeded up considerably."

But others said Moscow had succeeded only in eliminating the one man who could have helped bring a negotiated peace to the region. Moscow, they said, now faces years of continued warfare against a resistance that will increasingly be led by radical Islamists.

Maskhadov represented a rebel wing that had been relatively moderate. Basayev is much more closely associated with radical Islam.

Authorities said three Maskhadov associates had been detained in the operation. One was identified as Vakhit Murdashev, Maskhadov's chief of staff after his 1997 election as president of Chechnya, the Russian news agency Interfax reported.

Chechens exercised self-rule in their republic in the Caucasus after defeating Russian troops in a 1994-96 war. Russian forces returned in 1999 after a series of apartment bombings in Russia were blamed on Chechen terrorists. Chechnya is now led by pro-Kremlin President Alu Alkhanov.

The intent of Tuesday's operation had been to capture Maskhadov, not kill him, said Kadyrov, whose father, late Chechen President Akhmad Kadyrov, was killed in May by a bomb planted in a sports stadium.

Maj. Gen. Ilya Shabalkin, a spokesman for Russian forces in the region, said Maskhadov was killed when federal forces blew up his bunker. But Russian news agencies quoted Kadyrov as saying that he was killed by a bullet fired by one of his own bodyguards.

"They wanted to capture Maskhadov alive, but he died as a result of his bodyguard's negligent handling of a firearm," Kadyrov told Itar-Tass.

Maskhadov had been hiding in a small bunker, but "the place was very tight," Kadyrov said. "His bodyguard might have been awkward and accidentally opened fire. The shot was lethal."

Chechen presidential security servicemen took part in the operation along with federal forces, said Kadyrov, a hard-line opponent of rebel forces who is often viewed as the most powerful figure in Chechnya.

Sultanbek Larsanov, a resident of Tolstoy-Yurt, said in a telephone interview that he heard helicopters flying low over the village beginning about 9 a.m. Tuesday.

"My neighbors told me there is a 'mopping-up operation' in the village," he said. "Usually during such operations the federal troops or the police block the entire village, surrounding it with armored personnel carriers on all sides. Today they just blocked off a relatively small area in the western end of the village.

"We didn't see much movement of the troops and didn't hear hardly any fire except for a couple of distant shots and a couple of dull grenade explosions heard from that end of the village sometime before 11 a.m.," he said. "Only in the evening did we learn that Maskhadov was killed, when we saw the reports on television."

Usman Ferzauli, Maskhadov's envoy in Northern Europe, confirmed in a telephone interview from Copenhagen that the Chechen leader was dead. He said a military committee in Chechnya would soon name his successor.

"It will be someone who is currently based in Chechnya, of course, and who has enough prestige among the fighters and the people in Chechnya to continue to lead the resistance cause," Ferzauli said.

Regardless of who is named to head the resistance, many observers believe Basayev will wield the greatest power.

"I won't guarantee now the safety of Russian officials anywhere in Russia or in the world from the attacks of Shamil Basayev's men," Ferzauli said. "So far we did our best to control this process and put brakes on it. But now our restraining levers are all but cut off. It was the biggest strategic mistake of Moscow, and they will see it themselves very shortly. The popular resistance is continuing, and Moscow gained nothing but lost quite a lot by killing Maskhadov."

Maskhadov's death is likely to advance the religious radicalization of the separatist movement and the war, said Salambek Maigov, a Moscow-based former representative of Maskhadov.

"I don't think Moscow can really call this a victory," Maigov said. "What certainly is going to take place is a radical Islamization of the existing resistance in Chechnya. From now on the Kremlin advocates of a strong-hand policy in Chechnya no longer need to think about any negotiations in Chechnya. They just destroyed this opportunity with their own hands."

Last week, in an e-mail interview posted on a rebel website, Maskhadov said he believed that a brief talk with Putin would be enough to reach a peace settlement.

"We think that 30 minutes of eye-to-eye talk would be enough to end this war, so as to explain to the Russian president what Chechens want," Maskhadov said. "I believe he does not know."

Maskhadov suggested that a deal could be reached based on the principle of security guarantees for the Chechen people and a Chechen commitment to respect Russia's regional and defense interests.

Maskhadov threatened, however, that if peace talks did not take place soon, "the flame of this conflagration will spread to the entire North Caucasus."

"The people of Russia will experience constant fear of possible retribution by suicide bombers in revenge for the evil deeds of … the federal forces in Chechnya," he said.

Anna Politkovskaya, an analyst for the newspaper Novaya Gazeta, said she no longer saw "any chances for a peaceful resolution for Chechnya."

"The only big figures remaining on the bloody chessboard of Chechnya are the two antagonistic poles: Kadyrov and Basayev," she said. "The stage is all set for more blood and more violence, with no light at the end of the tunnel."

Times staff writer Sergei L. Loiko contributed to this report.