Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev, who claimed responsibility for modern Russia's worst terrorist attacks, was killed Monday, Russia's top intelligence official said.
Federal Security Service head Nikolai Patrushev told President Vladimir Putin that Basayev had been killed overnight in Ingushetia — a republic bordering Chechnya that was plagued by sporadic spillover violence from the separatist region. Patrushev's meeting with Putin was shown on Russian state television.
Basayev, 41, claimed responsibility for some of Russia's worst terror attacks, including the seizure of a Moscow theater in 2002 in which dozens of hostages and militants died, the 2004 school hostage taking in Beslan that killed 331, and the seizure of about 1,000 hostages at a hospital in Budyonnovsk that killed about 100.
Patrushev gave no details of the operation in his televised remarks, but an Ingush regional Interior Ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said Basayev had been killed while accompanying a truck filled with 220 pounds of dynamite that blew up in the Ingush village of Ekazhevo early Monday.
Basayev was among four militants killed in the blast, which authorities earlier said had occurred inadvertently during a special police operation against rebels preparing an attack later Monday.
The Interfax news agency quoted Ingush Deputy Prime Minister Bashir Aushev as offering the same version of events and saying Basayev had been in a car accompanying the truck. He said Basayev's body had been identified "through some of the fragments, including his head," Interfax reported.
Patrushev told Putin that the Chechen rebels had hoped to "put political pressure on the Russian leadership" during the Group of Eight summit later this week, which Putin is chairing.
Patrushev said the operation to eliminate Basayev, in which many other rebels were killed, was thanks to intelligence operations abroad, "especially in those countries where arms were collected."
A major Chechen rebel Web site confirmed the death of Basayev and called him "a martyr."
The Kavkaz-Center site, citing a member of the rebel parliament, said Basayev had died in an accidental explosion of a truck.
Putin called Basayev's killing "deserved retribution" for attacks in Beslan and Budyonnovsk, the RIA-Novosti news agency reported.
The attack on the Beslan school shocked Russia and divided the rebel movement, since civilians, including women and children, were taken hostage.
Basayev was the most notorious of the Chechen warlords, eluding Russian forces for years despite Kremlin vows to hunt him down and an offer of $10 million and plastic surgery to anyone providing information leading to his death
His grim, decade-long record of killing both civilians and soldiers reflected fanatical determination — a ferocity Russia long claimed was bolstered by help from international terrorist networks such as al-Qaida. Washington declared Basayev a terrorist and threat to the United States.
Basayev began his campaign even before the Soviet Union's demise — starting with the hijack of an airliner in 1991 — to attract interest in the separatist cause of Chechnya, a predominantly Muslim region in the Caucasus Mountains.
After Russian forces entered Chechnya in 1994, his exploits became more prominent. Basayev's forces buried a container of radioactive material in a Moscow park in 1995 — a warning of the mayhem they could inflict if they chose.
The Budyonnovsk hospital raid brought Basayev fame at home. When Russian troops pulled out in 1996 and Chechnya prepared to elect a president to lead it to de facto independence, Basayev ran for the job.
He lost to the late rebel commander Aslan Maskhadov and became his deputy. Basayev appeared at first to be trying to change from combatant to politician, trimming his flowing beard and trading his camouflage fatigues for a suit.
Alu Alkhanov, president of the Kremlin-backed government in Chechnya, said Basayev's killing likely would undermine the Chechen rebel movement irreparably.
"I consider that today can be considered the date of the logical end of the fight against illegal armed formations," he said, according to Interfax.
Anna Politkovskaya, a journalist who has frequently reported on Chechnya, agreed that Basayev's killing, if confirmed, would be a huge propaganda coup for Putin ahead of the G-8 summit.
"Basayev is major symbol for Putin and his elimination just before the G-8 summit is an amazing present for him," she said.
But she said that his death, just like that of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, al-Qaida in Iraq's slain leader, would not bring an end to the conflict in Chechnya and the wider North Caucasus region, which has been fueled by boiling resentment of widespread human rights abuses against civilians.
"If you look at the situation in the North Caucasus, not just in Chechnya, the ranks of the rebel resistance are constantly being replenished," she said.
Another rebel leader, Doku Umarov, pledged last month that rebels would step up their attacks against Russian forces.
Umarov took over as Chechnya's new separatist leader last month after police killed Abdul-Khalim Sadulayev during a raid in an eastern Chechen town. Sadulayev's predecessor, Maskhadov, was killed in a police operation in March 2005.
Maskhadov was considered more open to negotiations than Basayev, who cultivated a reputation for ruthlessness.
Umarov last month named Basayev as his vice president. It was unclear whether that represented a radicalization of Umarov's faction or whether it was an attempt to rein in Basayev by Umarov, who had pledged not to continue attacks on civilians.