Chechen Rebel Leader Dies in Shootout

Police kill separatist Sadulayev. He had tried to spark a revolt in the Caucasus against Russia.

By Kim Murphy

Los Angeles Times

June 18, 2006

MOSCOW — The separatist Chechen leader who had attempted to inspire an Islamic rebellion against Russia across the northern Caucasus was killed Saturday in a gunfight with police in his hometown.

The death of Abdul-Khalim Sadulayev, a former Islamic court judge who took over the Chechen resistance after the death of former Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov, is a serious blow to insurgents attempting to destabilize southern Russia and establish independence for Chechnya.

"The terrorists have been virtually decapitated. They have sustained a severe blow, and they are never going to recover from it," Ramzan Kadyrov, prime minister of the Russian-backed Chechen government, told the Interfax news agency.

An intelligence agent and police officer also were killed in the operation, the Federal Security Service said, and NTV television reported that a second militant had died as well.

Sadulayev and military commander Shamil Basayev had jointly led what many believe is a dwindling separatist force in a republic that is increasingly coming under Moscow's control, even as violence has filtered out of Chechnya and into adjoining republics.

Basayev's popularity has diminished as Chechens grow fatigued with the counterpoint of violence and reprisals. Sadulayev had worked to eliminate terrorist violence outside Chechnya, his supporters said, and had a substantial following among young Muslims disenchanted with corruption and violence among Kadyrov and his entourage.

"This morning in an unequal battle, another president of the Chechen republic was killed — the legitimate president, the legitimate holder of power," Akhmed Zakayev, the Chechen separatists' foreign minister, said in a telephone interview. "And I think that the Russian authorities have an inadequate assessment of the situation in Chechnya and the North Caucasus. Otherwise, there is no way to explain their celebratory mood in connection with Sadulayev's murder."

He said that Sadulayev was a staunch opponent of terrorism and that he had halted terrorist attacks targeting civilians outside Chechnya.

"This was a person for whom any form of violence against civilians was unacceptable," Zakayev said. "And it is thanks to him that during his entire time as president, not a single terrorist act against civilians was carried out by Basayev."

Sadulayev had won pledges of loyalty not only from Chechen separatists, but also from Islamic fundamentalist groups seeking the overthrow of the Kremlin's authority across southern Russia.

In recent months, he had called for expanding the Chechnya conflict into a "decolonization" of Muslim-dominated adjoining regions and adoption of a constitution based on Islamic law, or Sharia.

"We are waging this war to oust the enemy, liberate ourselves from Russia's colonial policy and to live in a free country in accordance with our laws, customs and traditions. And for this purpose, we need to have our land free," Sadulayev told the Bulgarian weekly Politika in his last interview, posted Saturday on the rebel-linked Chechenpress website.

"If the Russian leadership is ready to agree to an armistice with us, to stop the war and establish relations, then there will be no obstacles from our side," he added.

Maskhadov also had been an advocate of a negotiated end to the long-running conflict. Authorities killed him in March 2005 in his hide-out in the basement of a house in a Chechen village.

Kadyrov said police had located Sadulayev in his hometown of Argun as part of a tip that he was planning an attack timed to next month's Group of 8 summit in St. Petersburg, which President Bush is expected to attend.

"Sadulayev had recently been outside the Chechen republic, but a week ago he arrived in Chechnya to organize a large-scale terrorist attack in Argun. We received information on this for 1,500 rubles," or about $55, "conducted an operation, and now Sadulayev is dead," Kadyrov said.

Sadulayev, a former head of the Sharia court in Chechnya who is believed to be in his 30s, was little-known before his rise to leadership. The radio station Echo of Moscow said prosecutors considered him the main organizer of the 2001 kidnapping of Kenneth Gluck, a U.S. citizen and employee of Doctors Without Borders who was held for 25 days.

Authorities believe Sadulayev also was one of the organizers of a June 2004 raid on government facilities in the republic of Ingushetia that led to the deaths of about 90 people.

But Sadulayev was far more popular among Chechens than was Basayev, especially among young people, according to a recent poll by the Caucasus Times, a regional publication.

The poll showed about 27% of Chechens supported Kadyrov.

"But what proved absolutely unexpected for me and my colleagues was that 24% supported the candidacy of Abdul-Khalim Sadulayev" as legitimate head of state, the newspaper's editor, Islam Tekushev, told Radio Liberty last week. Basayev earned 1% support in the poll.

Alexei Malashenko, a Caucasus specialist with the Carnegie Moscow Center, said Sadulayev was in effect the first Chechen leader to spread the conflict outside Chechnya.

"Maskhadov's role was much more important than Abdul-Khalim's, of course, and yet while Abdul-Khalim was alive, there was still a certain hope for the rebels that maybe in the future, maybe in a short time, something could be organized," Malashenko said.

The separatist forces' ability to muster a response to Sadulayev's death will provide a measure of their continuing viability, Malashenko said.

"Now, the main role of leader of the resistance seems to belong to Basayev," he said, adding that revenge will be immediate if the warlord can manage it.

Before his death, Sadulayev and the rest of the separatists' ruling council had designated Doku Umarov, deputy premier of the rebel government, as his successor.

Unlike Sadulayev and Maskhadov, who tended toward politics, Umarov is an active field commander who has conducted a number of operations against Russian and pro-Moscow Chechen forces in Chechnya.