Russia said yesterday that it had killed a notorious Chechen rebel commander believed to have organised the kidnapping and murder of three Britons and a New Zealander three years ago.
Elite Russian troops trapped Arbi Barayev and some of his followers in six days of heavy fighting in a village close to the Chechen capital Grozny.
Chechen guerrilla sources confirmed yesterday that Barayev was dead saying that he had become a martyr.
Barayev was seen as the mastermind behind the abduction of three British telephone engineers, Darren Hickey, Rudolf Petschi and Peter Kennedy, and a New Zealander Stanley Shaw from a house in Grozny in 1998.
They were starved and beaten while they were held captive before being murdered and their heads left beside a road.
A spokesman for the Kremlin, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, seemed to leave no doubt that the dead body found after the fighting is that of Arbi Barayev despite frequent claims in the past that he was dead.
"Relatives have identified Barayev," said Mr Yastrzhembsky. "On Monday his body will be handed over to relatives to buried."
The Kavkaz.org website, the means by which the Chechen guerrillas normally claim victories or acknowledge defeats, said "the commander of the Special Islamic regiment Arbi Barayev has become a shahid (martyr)".
Vladmir Moltenskoi, the interim Russian commander in Chechnya, told NTV television that the rebels had hidden Barayev's bodies under some rubble but it was later discovered by troops. For once both Chechen rebels and the Russian army agree that the guerrillas had suffered a defeat. The rebels admitted losing 17 men while the Russian army said that 20 had been killed along with one Russian soldier in the fighting in and around the village of Alkhan-Kala south-west of Grozny.
The kidnap and gruesome murder of the British and New Zealand engineers was the most notorious of the wave of kidnappings in and around Chechnya after the rebels had defeated the Russian army in the war of 1994-96.
Many commanders like Barayev were directly involved in the kidnappings as well as ministers and officials in the Chechen government.
Even when they did not plan the abduction their names were often used by the kidnappers with their knowledge and they were paid a percentage of the ransom.
The kidnappings undermined attempts to set up an effective Chechen government before the second Russian invasion in 1999.
The death of Barayev is unlikely to have much effect on the war. The guerrillas have been launching pin-prick attacks against Russian forces using mines, bombs and snipers which have inflicted continual casualties. They have seldom fought in large units for over a year. They have also moved back into the capital Grozny, from where they were driven early last year, and neighbouring towns.
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