Thu, 10 Mar 2005

From: Reuters

Chechen guerrillas defiant after chief Maskhadov killed

Richard Balmforth, Reuters/Moscow

Chechen rebels on Wednesday vowed to press ahead with their fight for independence after the death of guerrilla chief Aslan Maskhadov amid speculation the separatist leadership might now fall into more violent hands.

Analysts said feared warlord Shamil Basayev, who has claimed responsibility for some of the worst acts of violence in Russia, including last year's bloody attack on the school in Beslan, might now take over at the helm of the Chechen resistance.

Maskhadov, 53, with Basayev one of Russia's most wanted men, was killed on Tuesday in an operation by the FSB security service in a village north of the regional capital Grozny.

FSB officials, quoted by Russian media, suggested he was killed by a grenade thrown into the reinforced underground bunker where he was holed up in the village of Tolstoy-Yurt.

His death provided a much-needed triumph for the hardline policies of President Vladimir Putin in the Muslim North Caucasus territory.

Despite taking an uncompromising stand to fulfill his pledge to "rub out" separatist rebels in Chechnya, Putin has suffered numerous setbacks.

His five years in power have been marked by deadly Chechen suicide bomb attacks in Moscow, a mass hostage-taking at a theater that cost the lives of 129 hostages and the Beslan massacre in southern Russia in which more than 320 people, half of them children, were killed.

But some analysts said the death of Maskhadov, a former Soviet army colonel who enjoyed the legitimacy of being democratically elected president of Chechnya in 1997, removed a moderate who could have negotiated peace with the Kremlin.

The veteran leader had often invited Moscow to hold talks with him, saying a peaceful solution to a conflict that has killed tens of thousands of people in the past 10 years could be worked out in a matter of minutes.

Moscow refused, saying it did not negotiate with terrorists. Maskhadov's London-based envoy Akhmed Zakayev said a successor would be named within days, though he did not say who this might be.

Commentators speculated that it could be either Basayev or Doku Umarov, commander of the rebels' "south western front" who has been linked by Russian security forces to several bloody attacks including Beslan and a raid into Ingushetia region last June that killed scores of people.

"Both of these field commanders, unlike Aslan Maskhadov who said he wanted peaceful negotiations with Moscow, are known for being uncompromising and aggressive in dealing with Russia," Kommersant daily wrote.

"So terror will only increase if either of these comes to power," it said in a commentary.

The heavily bearded Basayev, who lost a foot after treading on a mine, has been behind many of the sensational Chechen rebel operations and is the most notorious figure in Russia.

He claimed responsibility for organizing the Beslan bloodbath in September and two suicide bomb attacks that downed two passenger planes over Russia with the deaths of 90 people.