Anne Penketh: Chechen leader's death a coup for Kremlin

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The Independent Online

Whether the death of Shamil Basayev was indeed an accident as announced by Chechen rebels, or a lucky strike for Russian security forces, the killing of Russia's most wanted man is a major coup for President Vladimir Putin as he prepares to host the G8 summit in St Petersburg next weekend.

Basayev's death comes after Russian security forces claimed another Chechen scalp by killing separatist rebel leader Abdul-Khalim Saydullayeh last month.

Russia has made it clear that it expects the G8 summit, to be held in Mr Putin's home town, to pledge expanded international cooperation in tackling terrorism, in addition to the main focus on energy security.

The summit leaders are expected to endorse a statement on the need to involve private business in the fight against terrorism, after watering down Russian proposals for media restrictions regarding terrorism-related issues. But despite the significant propaganda boost for the Kremlin, Basayev's killing is unlikely to bring an end to the violence in the breakaway republic, whose militant leaders have been fighting for independence from Russia for more than a decade. The last hopes of a negotiated settlement died with the assassination of the elected Chechen president, Aslan Maskhadov, who was killed by the Russian army in March last year.

Basayev has been the most enduring and elusive commander, who has never hesitated to use civilians as pawns in his struggle with the Kremlin leaders. The Beslan school siege was the latest example of his ruthlessness, and Basayev's successor, Doku Umarov, could be tempted to carry out similar attacks.

But with the "Chechenisation" of Russia's policies in the last 18 months, which have subcontracted responsibility for continuing the war to the pro-Moscow Chechen authorities, the brutality of Chechen rebel tactics has been matched by that of Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov. The forces of Mr Kadyrov, who likes to be photographed with his pet tiger, have been accused of human rights abuses against the Chechen population in his efforts to stamp out the armed insurgency.

Human Rights Watch researcher Anna Neistat, who visited the Muslim republic recently, said that terrified Chechen residents described torture with electric wires at the hands of Mr Kadyrov's men, who are so confident of impunity that they carry out their dirty work unmasked. Ms Neistat fears that now that the Chechen war has been officially declared over by the Russians, Mr Kadyrov's methods, unchecked by Moscow, are preparing the ground for more bloodshed.

And Mr Putin, who has now been handed the perfect opportunity to trumpet Russian strategy with the death of Basayev, is unlikely to be taken to task by George Bush and Tony Blair at the G8 summit over the methods of his protégé in Chechnya.

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