MOSCOW – Russia's defense minister on Tuesday hailed the killing of Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev as a just retribution to "our bin Laden," but said his death doesn't mean an end to the fight against rebels.
Speaking on a trip to the Chechen capital of Grozny, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov compared Basayev to Al Qaeda leader Usama bin Laden and said he was the last of a string of Chechen rebel leaders who had initiated a separatist drive for the Caucasus Mountains region nearly 15 years ago.
"Basayev's death is a landmark event," Ivanov said in remarks broadcast by state television. "He was our bin Laden."
Basayev, the ruthless warlord who orchestrated Russia's worst terrorist attacks, including the bloody 2004 Beslan school siege, was killed Monday when a dynamite-laden truck in his convoy exploded in Ingushetia, a Russian province west of Chechnya.
There were different explanations for the cause of the explosion that killed Basayev, 41.
Russia's security chief told President Vladimir Putin that Basayev had been killed in a special operation, while a rebel-connected Web site said Basayev had died in an accidental explosion. Ingush authorities said the explosion occurred mistakenly during a special police operation against rebels.
The ITAR-Tass news agency, citing an unidentified law enforcement official in southern Russia, reported that Basayev had been killed by a missile that homed in on his cell phone — the method used to kill Chechen separatist president, Dzhokhar Dudayev, in 1996.
Russian television showed charred remains of the truck that exploded and two damaged cars next to a wrecked building. A corpse, apparently that of a rebel, lay on the ground with the clothes in shreds. The village is two miles east of Nazran, Ingushetia's biggest city.
Ingush Deputy Prime Minister Bashir Aushev said Basayev's body had been identified "through some of the fragments, including his head," the Interfax news agency reported.
Ivanov said Basayev's death would help stabilize Chechnya, but added that authorities must continue their hunt for the rebels.
"The killing of that terrorist doesn't mean that the fight against militants is over," he said. "There is still work to do, and it's being done."
Ivanov also said that the federal government would strengthen efforts to normalize conditions in the region and shortly allocate funds for rebuilding the war-shattered city of Grozny. More than $37 million had been earmarked for the purpose, he said.
Oleg Orlov, the head of the Memorial, a leading Russian rights group that has been active in Chechnya, said that Basayev's death would weaken rebels but wouldn't end hostilities.
"The situation will not change drastically," Orlov said, according to Interfax.
The inability to hunt down Basayev was a long-standing embarrassment for Russia, and analysts said his death was a huge propaganda coup for Putin as he prepares to host President Bush and other leaders of the Group of Eight leading industrialized nations at a weekend summit in St. Petersburg.
"It will help boost Putin's image," said retired Gen. Gennady Yevstafyev, a security affairs analyst with the Moscow-based PIR-Center think tank. "Putin now has something to boast about — unlike Bush, who hasn't tracked down Usama bin Laden yet."
Basayev was the most notorious of the Chechen warlords, eluding Russian forces despite Kremlin vows to hunt him down and an offer of a $10 million reward and plastic surgery to anyone providing information leading to his death.
He terrorized Russia with savage attacks that observed no limits — targeting hospitals, a theater and, in his most infamous plot, schoolchildren in the southern Russian city of Beslan.
The September 2004 attack on School No. 1 in Beslan shocked Russia and divided the rebel movement because civilians, including women and children, were taken hostage. There were 331 children killed in the siege.
The June 1995 attack on a hospital in the southern Russian town of Budyonnovsk, in which some 1,000 people were taken hostage and about 100 killed, was Basayev's first major terror attack. Dozens more were killed when Russian troops unsuccessfully stormed the hospital.