Rumours run wild about dead leader

If there is anything that takes root more quickly in the fertile, blood- drenched, soil of the north Caucasus than vines and apple orchards, it is misinformation. Now, as spring comes to Chechnya, this year's harvest is looking ominously rich.

The biggest whopper has been grown in the Kremlin by Boris Yeltsin. He displayed it in all its grotesque glory nine days ago after a meeting with Bill Clinton in Moscow. With the American President sitting happily at his side, he repeatedly assured the world that Russia's military operations in Chechnya were over.

Both presidents knew it was a lie. So did the residents of Grozny who listen every night as jets roar overhead on their way to yet another bombing run. But now, a fresh crop of rumours and suspicions is sprouting. They concern the death of Dzhokhar Dudayev, leader of the Chechen separatists.

When the Russian news agency, Itar-Tass, broke the news that Dudayev had been killed, it was treated with caution by the outside world. Then the confirmations rolled in. The Chechen high command, including their star commander, Shamil Basayev, agreed. In villages in southern Chechnya, thousands of men, women and children wept, danced, prayed and feasted on mutton.

The Chechens blamed the Russians, who made no secret of their desire to kill the general. The separatists said he was blown up while making a telephone call on a hillside outside the village of Gekhi-Chu, 20 miles south of Grozny. He was hit by a missile fired from a jet, after the Russians pinpointed his whereabouts by intercepting the signal of his satellite phone.

It seemed plausible. The Russians wanted to avenge an attack on a convoy five days earlier on 16 April in which scores of troops died, an episode that so angered the generals that they began to openly attack President Yeltsin's Chechnya policy. This was bad news for the Kremlin, as presidential elections are less than two months away. Moreover, the Russian military reportedly have the technology to do it, although the missile strike seemed uncharacteristically well-executed.

Ten days on, the picture has become less clear. The first hint that Russia may not have been involved lies in the reaction to Dudayev's death. Instead of proclaiming their triumph, the military dithered - unable to decide whether to take the plaudits for a rare success, or undermine the Chechens by encouraging the world to believe they had killed their own leader.

The head of Russian forces in Chechnya, General Vyacheslav Tikhomirov, denied there were operations in the Gekhi-Chu area when Dudayev was killed. This was contradicted by the Interior Ministry, which said the area had been bombed.

Then there was the strange behaviour of the Chechens. Some of the high command seemed genuinely bewildered by Dudayev's death. Yet they also seemed almost too organised. Journalists arriving in rebel-held territory were taken to press conferences, given by senior commanders.

The performance by "brigade general" Ruslan Gelayev, the rebels' second most powerful commander, was typical.

"The Russians are trying to divide us," he told journalists in Komsomolskoye, a rebel-held Chechen village. Half a mile away, scores of khaki-clad fighters were milling around outside the local school, waiting to feast on a slaughtered cow, undaunted by the nearby pop of exploding bullets from Russian snipers. "With Dudayev, we fought for freedom. And without him we fight for freedom. The aim hasn't changed," he continued, before sticking his pistol in his belt, for the photographers' benefit.

The message was consistent, no matter who you talked to: the battle for independence goes on; the movement is not split and the new leader, Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, was elected and is fully supported. Yet the answers to key questions were missing. Why did the general have such a small, swift, secret funeral? Why have no photographs been released to date of his body?

It was with the intention of clearing up these matters that a small party of journalists, including the Independent, met Alla Dudayev, the general's wife, in a Chechen farmhouse.

The occasion was surreal. Mrs Dudayev, a Russian, arrived dressed like a Hollywood leading lady in widow's weeds, her blonde locks shrouded in a black silk scarf. Watched over by two fighters, she made a quavering appeal for peace, read one of her poems, buried her head in her hands, and fled from the room after only one question. Moments later, she clambered into a battered old grey Volga, accompanied by three bodyguards, and clattered off across the landscape, leaving a trail of dust as impenetrable as the circumstances surrounding her husband's death.