The bizarre case of a kidnapped general's missing body

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Is he alive or dead? In a bizarre mystery, a body said to be that of the most senior Russian officer kidnapped in Chechnya has disappeared after officials refused identification by his brother or wife.

At the centre of the controversy is Vladimir Rushailo, the powerful Interior minister, accused of covering up the death of Major-General Gennady Shpigun, the Interior Ministry representative in Chechnya, kidnapped on 5 March last year.

Critics of Mr Rushailo say he is refusing to allow General Shpigun's body to be identified because he would have to explain why he had failed to rescue him, despite repeated pledges to do so. That might damage Mr Rushailo's chances of keeping his job in the new government to be formed after Vladimir Putin is inaugurated as president today.

The Independent on Sunday has been told by Russia's leading expert on Chechen kidnaps that General Shpigun is dead, and his body was identified by an officer who knew him before he was kidnapped.

The mystery surrounding the fate of General Shpigun began after the Russian press reported last month that his body had been found near Itum-Kalye, a mountain village in the Argun Gorge, in southern Chechnya. It was taken to the Russian military headquarters at Mozdok and put on a plane to be properly identified at a forensic laboratory, known as "124", in the southern Russian city of Rostov. It never got there. The plane was diverted.

Major Alexander Tikhonov, the deputy head of the laboratory, says he has not identified the body because he never received it. But the Interior Ministry announced on 10 April that the supposed body was being identified at Laboratory 124.

Major Vyacheslav Izmailov, the kidnap specialist, said a member of the Russian official commission on prisoners-of-war and missing military personnel, whom he could not name, saw the general's remains. "He knew Shpigun before, and was able to identify him," said Major Izmailov. "There was no need to send him to a forensic laboratory."

The major has a simple explanation for the refusal of the Interior Ministry to confirm that General Shpigun was dead, and give him the hero's funeral that usually honours other senior Russian officers killed in Chechnya - Mr Rushailo wants to be in the new cabinet. "Rushailo failed to do anything to save Shpigun for over a year," he said. If General Shpigun was buried in a blaze of publicity, people would ask whether "Rushailo can be trusted as a minister". Other Russian commentators have drawn a similar conclusion.

The daily Commersant believes General Shpigun's body was identified soon after it was found. It stated: "Rushailo has no interest in making this information public. To confess that your representative was held by bandits for a year as a prisoner, and your special services' efforts to set him free were all a failure, puts in question your competence as an Interior Minister."

General Shpigun's baffled brother, Victor, believes he may be alive. When he heard a body had been found, officials refused to let him identify it. When he said he would go to the building where he believed the body was, Mr Shpigun says officials in the prosecutor's office told him he "could go, but would not be let in".

Mr Rushailo last week said General Shpigun might be alive. He conceded that the body of a hostage was found, but insisted a forensic examination was being done. He did not say where.

A public admission of the general's death might hurt Mr Rushailo, but it would be in the Russian government's interest, because the circumstances of his abduction fit Mr Putin's official explanation of why Russia had to invade Chechnya last October.

The Chechen government was indistinguishable from kidnappers, he said, and the seizure of General Shpigun is strong evidence this was true. He was seized as he boarded a plane for Moscow at Severny airport outside Grozny. Then the airport was controlled partly by Aslan Maskhadov, the elected Chechen president, and partly by Shamil Basayev, the famous Chechen warlord. The organiser of the abduction was Baudi Bakuyev, a notorious Chechen kidnapper. But Major Izmailov says there must have been official Chechen involvement, notably by Nasrudi Bazhiev, then deputy head of the Chechen interior ministry.

The motive was almost certainly money - the kidnappers demanded $15m (£10m), later scaled down to $2m, though they also accused General Shpigun of organising the dreaded "filtration" camps for Chechen prisoners in the first Chechen war of 1994-96.

Exactly how General Shpigun died is not known. By one account he tried to escape and was executed. His kidnappers evidently moved him deeper into the Chechen mountains earlier this year as the Russian forces advanced south. They may have killed him when they ran out of hideouts.