'The best thing that I could do is to die'

Phil Reeves was present at one of Dudayev's last interviews
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The Independent Online
Dzhokhar Dudayev, always dapper, was wearing his olive-green fatigues, and not the all-white "death suit", which he saved for days when he was feeling at his most flamboyantly mortal. But he was obviously anxious, harping obsessively on the possibility of his death.

He had lost count of the number of times the Russians had tried to kill him. There had been car bombs, grenades, and a bizarre occasion when he was given a knife with an electronic homing device in the handle, allowing aircraft to track him down. And yet, he said, flashing a cynical grin: "My only bodyguard is Allah."

One only had to glance around the small sitting room to realise this remark was meant to be figurative. At his side, hidden under a table, lay a semi-automatic weapon. Two armed rebels stood near by, listening to his late-night monologue withreverence. Outside the safe house, there were more guards.

Sitting with him just over a month ago, it defied belief that Russia's special services, with all their Cold War expertise, did not know where he was. After all, we had tracked him down. Yet the general, Russia's most wanted man, was taking every precaution to safeguard his whereabouts, as we discovered en route to his hideout.

After hanging around in a rebel village headquarters for hours, we had been ordered by our Chechen guards into the back of a closed truck and taken on an odyssey across the Caucasus mountains. Clattering through orchards, across rivers, and an ocean of mud, we arrived at a rebel base, only to move on to another, and then another.

One safe house had two dusty, presidential-style limousines in the car park, a reminder of the three years in which the general ruled this tiny republic, sweeping in and out of the presidential palace, now a pile of rubble in Grozny. In the distance, down on the plains, we could hear the crash of Russian bombs on the villages of south-western Chechnya.

Only well after dark did the general appear, settling into a sofa for a four-hour interview about the evils of the West, the crimes of Boris Yeltsin's regime, the horror of the bombing raids on peaceful villages, and his determination to secure a referendum on independence.

"We are not as simple as you think," he said, reflecting on the "trillions of roubles" he said Russia was spending, in trying to assassinate him. "We have made preparations that after my death, their [the Russians'] problems will increase tenfold."

In the next few weeks, it will become clear whether those preparations exist. Although the 52-year-old general had many enemies in Chechnya, he was a powerful focal point for the movement for total independence. Without him, the Chechen rebel leadership could fracture into warring factions, a process the Russian military is certain to encourage. Announcing the general's death on Chechnya's "Presidential" television station, Shamil Basayev, a top commander, said the new leader will be Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, 45, a lesser-known Dudayev aide. But this could easily be a holding position until the true successor is chosen.

Yesterday many Russians seemed wary of believing Dudayev was dead. Although Mr Yeltsin had denounced him as a "mad dog", worthy of death, his true relationship with the Kremlin was more ambiguous.

He had agreed to negotiate over Mr Yeltsin's peace proposals, a plan on which the President's re-election this summer may depend. But any chance of a warmer relationship was wrecked by last week's Chechen attack on a Russian convoy, which killed at least 53 soldiers.

It is not impossible that hardline generals, infuriated by the peace initiative, ordered the killing of Dudayev as an act of revenge. Whatever the truth of his death, most Russians will not grieve. Many see him as a crook who led an illegal uprising in a tinpot Islamic republic dominated by gangsters. They remember how his forces humiliated their paratroopers in late 1991, when they arrived in Chechnya, shortly after he was elected president and declared independence. The troops who found the airport blocked with farm machinery were disarmed by the Chechens, and forced to withdraw without a shot fired.

Russians will also recall with bitterness the episode last June, six months after Mr Yeltsin's unpopular decision to send troops into the republic, when Mr Basayev led a raid on to Russian soil, seized several thousand hostages in Budyonnovsk in a deadly stand-off which only ended after he and his band secured their safe passage home.

Then there were the farcical events of January, after another rebel hostage- taking raid in neighbouring Dagestan, when Russian forces failed to subdue a band of Chechens in the village of Pervomayskoye, despite three days of bombardment.

Whether the Chechens will find anyone of Dudayev's stature is hard to predict. His nationalism was forged in the furnace of Soviet repression, as a standard- bearer for the cause. The youngest of seven, he was born in 1944, the year Stalin deported the Chechens en masse in cattle trucks to Central Asia and Siberia. He went with them.

"Put yourself in my boots," the general told us last month, in one of his last interviews. "The best thing for me to do is leave this life, and leave all the tragedies behind with those who caused them". Death would be a source of "complete satisfaction".

On Monday, apparently as he stood in a field, negotiating with a Kremlin intermediary on a satellite phone, a Russian rocket attack granted his wish.