VLADIKAVKAZ, Russia – With the 2 1/2-year-old war in Chechnya dragging on, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Tuesday that the fight against terrorism is still a pressing issue for Russians.
The fight against terror "has not lost its meaning," Putin told his Security Council in remarks broadcast on Russian television.
Russian officials insist large-scale fighting is essentially over in the separatist republic and that the rebels are near defeat. But rebels continue to bleed Russian forces daily with ambushes and mine blasts.
Putin, who has tried to shift the focus in Chechnya toward rebuilding the shattered republic, told the Security Council on Tuesday that he wants Russia's Interior Ministry, which oversees police, to play a bigger role.
The Federal Security Service announced last week that one of Russia's leading foes in Chechnya, warlord Omar Ibn al Khattab, had been killed. Khattab, an Arab believed to have ties with Usama bin Laden's Al Qaeda terrorist network, was responsible for some of the rebels' boldest attacks.
A rebel spokesman initially denied Khattab was killed, but the pan-Arab daily al-Hayat reported Monday, quoting a family member, that Khattab had been buried in Saudi Arabia after being poisoned in Chechnya.
On Tuesday, the chief of Russia's armed forces general staff suggested that Russian troops had killed another leading rebel warlord Shamil Basayev, according to ITAR-Tass news agency.
But reports on Gen. Anatoly Kvashnin's remarks were conflicting, and the Russian Defense Ministry and the Kremlin office on Chechnya refused to comment. Rebel sources could not immediately be reached.
In remarks shown on state-run RTR television later, Kvashnin said only: "As soon as we find evidence, we will say something" about Basayev.
Russian officials have made similar claims in the past that have turned out to be untrue.
Russian troops fought a 1994-96 war in Chechnya but were forced into a humiliating retreat, leaving the region with de facto independence. They returned in 1999 after rebel incursions into neighboring Russian regions and after apartment-house bombings blamed on the rebels killed more than 300 in Russian cities.