Chechen rebel leader 'killed by bodyguard accidentally'

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The Independent Online

Russia's secret service claimed last night that Aslan Maskhadov, the rebel president of Chechnya, and one of Russia's two most wanted men, had been shot dead.

Russia's secret service claimed last night that Aslan Maskhadov, the rebel president of Chechnya, and one of Russia's two most wanted men, had been shot dead.

Ramzan Kadyrov, vice-president in Chechnya's Moscow-backed government, claimed the separatist leader, who has been on the run for five years, had been accidentally shot by his own bodyguard.

If confirmed, the news will be a significant boost for President Vladimir Putin of Russia who placed a bounty of $10m (£5.2m) on Maskhadov's head and that of the warlord Shamil Basayev last year after the Beslan school siege. The Kremlin held both of them responsible.

The NTV channel last night broadcast pictures of a man it said was Maskhadov as Mr Putin ordered the head of the FSB security service to double-check the corpse's identity. He promised military honours for all those who took part in the "special operation".

The bearded, shirtless corpse shown on television bore a strong resemblance to the separatist leader. The corpse's arms were outstretched and the left ear caked in blood. The eyes were shut. NTV showed what it said was an FSB video in which troops in camouflage and black masks sifted through guns and unfolded a green, red and white Chechen flag.

A spokesman for Russian forces in Chechnya, Major- General Ilya Shabalkin, said that elite FSB special forces had found Maskhadov, 53, hiding in a bunker beneath a house in a village called Tolstoy-Yurt in northern Chechnya.

A captured rebel fighter had apparently tipped them off and rebel forces had allegedly been planning an attack on a government building in the same village. Kadyrov, one of Moscow's loyal point men in the region, said that special forces had wanted to take Maskhadov alive but had been unable to do so because of his own bodyguard's actions.

"Nobody intended to physically eliminate him," he told Russian media last night. "He died as the result of careless weapons-handling by his bodyguard who was standing beside him. Maskhadov had been hiding in a small bunker and it was cramped in there. The bodyguard obviously made a sudden movement and fired off a round. The shot turned out to be fatal." Four of Maskhadov's senior lieutenants were taken alive.

Nikolai Patrushev, the head of the FSB, told Mr Putin that Maskhadov's corpse had already been positively identified by local people and FSB specialists. But Chechen rebel leaders have regularly been erroneously declared dead by the authorities and Mr Putin obviously wants to be sure he has his man. If Maskhadov is dead, the Chechen separatist movement has been deprived of its only quasi-respectable figure, though the Kremlin has long considered him to be an international terrorist with whom negotiations would be impossible.

A former Soviet colonel, Maskhadov was elected Chechnya's president in 1997 after Russian troops withdrew from the region following a two-year conflict. But he was declared persona non grata in 1999 when Russian forces entered Chechnya to restore stability on Mr Putin's orders and has been on the run since 2000.

Maskhadov repeatedly tried to style himself as a moderate, calling for a negotiated end to a brutal conflict that has raged on and off since 1994. Last week, he told al-Jazeera television that he could solve the Chechen problem with a 30-minute face-to-face meeting with Mr Putin.

Mr Kadyrov said that Maskhadov's death was the beginning of the end for the rebel cause in Chechnya and that Basayev would be next. "Every day the number of so-called extremist leaders ... gets less," he said. "The ground beneath their feet has burnt, is burning and will burn."

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