The net appeared to be closing around one of Russia's two most wanted men last night after Chechnya's Moscow-backed authorities said they had cornered the breakaway region's long-sought rebel president, Aslan Maskhadov.
Ramzan Kadyrov, deputy prime minister in the region's Moscow-friendly government, said that he "had every reason to believe" Maskhadov and his associates were trapped by his forces in a forest in south-east Chechnya.
Officials said they had picked up the call signs of Maskhadov's closest aides in radio traffic from the cornered rebels, as well as numerous tip-offs that he was in the area. Mr Kadyrov said he hoped to capture Maskhadov alive after "liquidating" the armed gang surrounding him, which, he said, was led by the rebel president's most senior bodyguard, Akhmed Avdorkhanov. Rebel sources said some of Maskhadov's most senior aides were trapped but denied that he was present.
The Kremlin blames Maskhadov and the Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev for the Beslan school massacre and has posted a $10m (£6m) reward for information leading to their "neutralisation". But Maskhadov denies involvement in the Beslan atrocities, and tried to disassociate himself from Basayev by saying the latter should be tried for war crimes over the tragedy.
The former Soviet army colonel has consistently argued that the only way to solve the Chechen problem is around the negotiating table and has tried to portray himself as the moderate and reasonable face of armed separatism.
To Russia's horror, his spokesman, Akhmed Zakayev, was granted asylum in the UK and Moscow is trying to extradite him on terrorism-related charges. Russia insists Mas-khadov is a terrorist. America's ambassador to Russia delighted the Kremlin recently by suggesting Maskhadov was not a worthy interlocutor for negotiations. A senior US diplomat, who did not wish to be named, said Washington did not regard Maskhadov "as anybody's interlocutor" because he had "pretty much discredited himself". He added: "For years, Maskhadov has been complicit in terrorist acts in Chechnya, even if he is not necessarily in cahoots with Basayev. In a bygone era, we might have said you should negotiate with him, but those days have long passed."
A huge operation to catch Maskhadov and Basayev was launched last Friday by more than 1,000 Moscow-backed militia. Officials say more than 20 rebels have been killed in the area since Monday, and five militiamen are reported dead.
Colonel Sultan Satuev, Chechnya's Deputy Interior Minister, said: "Every member of the police force and the law enforcement authorities is keen for Maskhadov and Basayev to be brought before a court and to tell the world what heinous crimes they have committed and to be punished. But if they put up armed resistance they will be destroyed. For them, it would be more frightening to fall into the hands of ordinary citizens, for they have the blood of hundreds, no thousands, of Chechen civilians on their hands, [and their] relatives will never forgive them."
Maskhadov won a landslide victory in Chechnya's 1997 presidential election but was ousted by a dissatisfied Moscow in 1999 when Russian troops were sent in for the second time in a decade after more terrorist attacks.