Chechens wail for hardliners' murder victim

Urus-Martan - More than 1,000 Chechens turned out in driving rain yesterday to mourn a district administrator shot dead by unknown gunmen over the weekend in an assassination heavy with political overtones.

Friends and relatives praised Yusup Elmurzayev, 40, for saving the town of Urus-Martan from destruction by steering a difficult path between Chechen separatists and the Russian army during 18 months of fighting. Chechen men danced in a circle near the body, clapping their hands and chanting rhythmic prayers. Women wailed as rain whipped across a muddy plaza surrounded by mourners standing five deep.

Elmurzayev, who worked in a local government body supported by Russia, was killed with three bodyguards as he drove to work on Saturday.

"This was nothing more than a terrorist act by the Dudayev-Yandarbiyev faction who are determined to kill off every Chechen who supports real democracy," said Shapa Gucheyev, 57, the uncle of the dead man.

Dzokhar Dudayev declared his region independent in 1991 and Russia sent troops in to crush it in 1994. Killed in a rocket attack in April, Dudayev was succeeded by Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev.

Mr Gucheyev and others like him in Urus-Martan are convinced that rebels killed the administrator both to frighten those who work for what the separatists view as quisling local governments and to upset the coming elections.

A discreet minority at the funeral said Russia was behind the attack. "This was not Chechens, it was Russian counter-intelligence, trying to upset the peace talks," one man said.

"The Russians are trying to divide the Chechen people by blaming our fighters . . . As for the elections, hardly anyone among the Chechens is going to vote anyway so what difference will they make?"