MOSCOW – Chechen rebels vowed Wednesday to carry on their separatist fight against Russia despite the death of their leader Aslan Maskhadov (search) after special forces cornered him in an underground bunker in northern Chechnya (search).
Russian legislators hailed Maskhadov's killing as a sign that Russia was on the right track in its anti-terrorist campaign, as they call the fight against Islamic militants in Chechnya and neighboring regions.
Russia's Federal Security Service chief announced Tuesday that Maskhadov had been killed in a special operation in the town of Tolstoy-Yurt. Russian television stations broadcast footage of a shirtless, gray-bearded corpse, and the rebel leader's envoy in London, Akhmed Zakayev, confirmed the 53-year-old guerrilla commander's death.
The ITAR-Tass news agency later cited the military commandant for Chechnya, Lt. Gen. Grigory Fomenko, as saying the body had been formally identified as Maskhadov.
"When terrorists feel they are literally being trailed, fighting groups are systematically being detained, when in fact a top leader is eliminated, this creates an atmosphere in which there's no place for terrorist attacks," said Vladimir Vasilyev, head of the security committee of the lower house of parliament.
But Chechen rebels vowed to continue fighting.
With Maskhadov's "violent death ... a new period has begun in the modern history of the Russian-Chechen military confrontation, which not only allows for no negotiations, but also for no end to the war," rebel ideologue Movladi Udugov wrote on a rebel Web site, Kavkaz-Center.
Chechnya's Kremlin-backed president ventured that the killing would make no difference.
"Whether there is Maskhadov or not, the situation in Chechnya will not change," the ITAR-Tass news agency quoted President Alu Alkhanov as saying. "Maskhadov was just a symbol in the hands of the terrorist (Shamil) Basayev. He had no other significance."
Russia's Kommersant daily speculated that either Shamil Basayev (search), a much-feared Wahhabi warlord, or his equally radical aide, self-styled Chechen State Security Minister Doku Umarov, would take over command of the rebels. In that case, "the terror will only intensify," the newspaper said.
Kommersant, citing a participant in the special operation that killed the rebel leader, said special forces had kicked in the door of the house and taken out the owner, a distant Maskhadov relative, who did not offer resistance and confirmed the rebel leader was in the basement. Russian representatives negotiated with Maskhadov for nearly an hour, using a former aide to the rebel leader who was in the bunker as a go-between.
Maskhadov refused to surrender, and after his three associates came out of the bunker, the special forces threw grenades in, Chechen Interior Minister Ruslan Alkhanov told Kommersant.
Tolstoy-Yurt residents reported hearing explosions, Kommersant said, but it cast doubt on the account because the body shown on Russian television showed no obvious signs of blast injuries.
Four men were detained, including the owner of the house where Maskhadov had hidden, Maj. Gen. Ilya Shabalkin, spokesman for Russian forces in Chechnya, said Wednesday.
Maskhadov's relatives on Wednesday were to help identify the body, the Interfax news agency quoted Shabalkin, as saying. A number of Maskhadov's relatives were reportedly abducted by security forces already in December, apparently in hopes of forcing him to surrender.
Russian Prosecutor-General Vladimir Ustinov suggested the body would not be given to relatives and that he would be buried secretly, following Russian law on the treatment of dead terrorists, the ITAR-Tass news agency reported.
Maskhadov's killing represents a rare propaganda victory for President Vladimir Putin (search) and his hardline approach to battling separatists, but it is unlikely to bring a quick end to Russia's bloody war in Chechnya, now in its sixth year and spreading unrest throughout the south.
Recent months have seen an upsurge in clashes between Islamic militants and federal forces in practically every republic in Russia's Caucasus Mountains region. While the skirmishes may not be directly tied to the Chechen conflict, Russian abuses in Chechnya have fueled what many experts see as a growing chain of insurgencies growing out of the poverty and corruption.
Alexei Malashenko, an expert on Islam at the Moscow Carnegie Center, said the killing was a "tactical" victory for Putin.
"But has he won for long?," Malashenko told Ekho Moskvy radio. "Later ... the situation in southern Russia could work as it always does, against his popularity rating."
For the Kremlin, Maskhadov was terrorist enemy No. 2, having lost influence to radical Islamic rebels in recent years. A comparative moderate and secularist among the separatists, he was overshadowed by Basayev, who has taken responsibility for terror attacks that have shaken Russia, from the seizure of a Moscow theater in 2002 to the Beslan school seizure last September.
But from a public relations point of view, Maskhadov was always seen as a dangerous foe for Putin. His was the most prominent rebel voice for negotiations to end the Chechen fighting — a stand Putin has consistently rejected — and he retained respect in some Western circles pressing Moscow to conclude peace with the militants.
His well-publicized announcement of a unilateral cease-fire last month put Kremlin officials under renewed pressure to open the way for talks.
In the first harsh foreign reaction, Polish Foreign Minister Adam Rotfeld called Maskhadov's killing "a crime" and "a political mistake because ... Maskhadov was the only partner with whom an agreement could be sought.
"I do not exclude that those who carried out the killing wanted to cross out the possibility of an agreement," Rotfeld said in Warsaw.
The Council of Europe expressed "regret that ... the Russian authorities have lost the opportunity to bring him to court."
"The effort to find a political solution to the situation in Chechnya must continue," it said.