Chechen Rebels Vow to Fight On Despite Slaying

Russia says the killing of Aslan Maskhadov is a blow to the insurgents, especially in financing.

By David Holley

Los Angeles Times

March 10, 2005

MOSCOW — Rebels in Chechnya vowed Wednesday to carry on an Islamic "holy war" against Russian control of the republic, a day after separatist leader Aslan Maskhadov was slain by the military.

However, Russian officials predicted that the death of the former Chechen president in an attack Tuesday would deal a sharp setback to rebels who are seeking independence for the predominantly Muslim republic.

Aslambek Aslakhanov, an advisor to Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, said at a news conference that the leading rebels would "now enter a fray to take Maskhadov's place" but that none would be able to match the former leader's ability to attract foreign political and financial support. "The destruction of Maskhadov therefore will reduce the funding of gangs," he said.

Guerrilla spokesman Movladi Udugov, in a statement posted on a rebel website, said that "the occupation forces and the puppets are celebrating what they see as a victory," but he called the mood "temporary propagandist euphoria."

Maskhadov's death does give Putin a new argument to use in refusing to negotiate with the rebels, Udugov added, because "there is, indeed, no one to have talks with in Chechnya anymore." The result, he said, will be continued war.

"By killing Maskhadov, the Kremlin has killed the last illusion of those Chechens who, despite everything, still believed in so-called international law and a civilized form of dealing with the current terrorist regime in Moscow," he said. "We ask God to accept the holy war of the emir of the mujahedin, Aslan Maskhadov!"

Maskhadov, 53, was elected Chechnya's president in 1997, during a period of self-rule in the republic after independence fighters defeated Russian troops in a 1994-96 war. The Russian military returned in 1999, imposing a pro-Moscow government and driving the rebels largely underground.

Maskhadov was killed during a special operation by the military in the village of Tolstoy-Yurt, 12 miles north of Grozny, the Chechen capital. He died after at least one grenade was thrown into the bunker where he was hiding, authorities said. The homeowner and three other people — associates or bodyguards of the former president — were captured, they said.

There were conflicting reports Wednesday over whether the three associates were in the bunker when it was blasted or had already surrendered.

The daily newspaper Kommersant, citing a participant in the attack, said special forces had broken in the door of the house and detained the homeowner, who was described as a distant relative of Maskhadov. The owner confirmed that the rebel chief was in the bunker, the paper reported.

Negotiations were held for nearly an hour, Kommersant said. Maskhadov refused to surrender, but the three associates emerged, according to Chechen Interior Minister Ruslan Alkhanov, and troops then threw in grenades, the paper said.

A pro-Moscow Chechen official said Tuesday that the military had intended to capture Maskhadov and that he had been killed by a bullet fired by one of his bodyguards.

Maskhadov's body has been officially identified but will not be turned over to his relatives, in keeping with a Russian law providing that the bodies of "terrorists" not be released to families.

"Under federal legislation, it will be buried at a site unknown to the public at large," said Lt. Gen. Grigory Fomenko, Chechnya's military commandant.

Ramzan Kadyrov, first deputy prime minister of the pro-Kremlin Chechen administration, said Maskhadov's death would free up forces to search for Shamil Basayev, the separatists' most radical leader.

Basayev, Russia's most want- ed man, has claimed responsibility for the school takeover last year in Beslan that left at least 326 hostages dead.

"The elimination of Aslan Maskhadov will accelerate the process of establishing the whereabouts of Basayev and detaining him," Kadyrov told the Russian news agency Interfax. "Now we can pay twice as much attention to this problem, as previously we had to work in several directions…. The security service will do everything in its power to shorten the number of Basayev's days."

In a speech on Chechen television Wednesday evening, Kadyrov called on guerrillas to lay down their arms.

"Those militants who were not involved in grave crimes may return to their families," he said. "You may return home with nothing to worry about."

Additional information emerged Wednesday about how Maskhadov had managed to hide in a place so close to the Chechen capital, an area largely controlled by Russian and pro-Moscow Chechen forces.

"The bunker where Maskhadov was hiding is under a house owned by a local resident, an electric welder by profession," the Itar-Tass news agency reported. "This man has always kept a low profile and invariably received favorable character references."

The house was purchased several years ago by Saidarbek Yusupov, who "repaired it and built an underground bunker and new exits and entrances," Interfax reported. Firearms, grenades, a "suicide belt," explosives, radios, laptop computers, videotapes and documents used by Maskhadov were discovered at the site, Itar-Tass said.

"Federal troops regard the local population as sympathetic to Russia," NTV reported. "This is thought to be the very reason why Aslan Maskhadov chose Tolstoy-Yurt as one of his resting places. No one would have thought of looking for the Chechen separatists' leader here."