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Chechen War's Regional Reach

Rebel Leader's Death Brings Predictions of More Violence

By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, March 10, 2005; Page A14

MOSCOW, March 9 -- Early last month, gunmen pulled alongside the car of Maj. Gen. Magomed Omarov, a deputy interior minister of Dagestan, a Russian republic squeezed between Chechnya and the Caspian Sea. They opened fire, killing Omarov and three bodyguards.

In December, insurgents in Kabardino-Balkaria, another Caucasian republic in the Russian Federation, killed four government employees, looted their offices and set them ablaze. In response, Russian forces killed three insurgents who they said had carried out the attack.

Officials arrived at the scene of an assassination last month in Dagestan, a Russian republic bordering Chechnya. (Sergei Rasulov -- AP)

After rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov, 53, was killed Tuesday, the Kremlin and its allies declared a major success in arresting a decade of war in Chechnya, a breakaway southern republic.

But Russian forces have failed to prevent the conflict from spreading outside Chechnya's borders. With a drumbeat of attacks on policemen, assassinations and bombings, insurgents have continued to destabilize the patchwork of small Russian republics in the North Caucasus.

The most brutal operation was the siege of a school last September in Beslan, a town in the republic of North Ossetia, in which 330 people, most of them children, were killed.

Other attacks pass with little publicity, even though they sometimes result in pitched fighting. In the city of Makhachkala, in Dagestan, for instance, a recent standoff ended with the deaths of five gunmen and the destruction of more than 15 houses set alight by flamethrowers and smashed by a Russian tank.

Maskhadov's death "is a very serious moral, psychological and political blow on terrorism," Gennady Gudkov, a member of the security committee in the State Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament, said on television Wednesday. It "will trigger disintegration processes, including abroad where there are centers that patronized Maskhadov, and I don't know how they can continue to exist without him. The terrorists have no one to replace Maskhadov."

Some Russian analysts and opponents of the war in Chechnya predict the opposite effect. They say the Kremlin has handed control of the Chechen resistance to its most brutal leader, Shamil Basayev, an Islamic fundamentalist who asserted responsibility for the school siege in Beslan. They contend he will continue to widen the war outside Chechnya.

"Basayev is now the single, top and unquestionable leader, and he is much more intransigent than Maskhadov," said Alexei Arbatov, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center. "Maskhadov was his only rival, and he had disassociated himself from some of the more horrible terrorist attacks. He was more moderate, more flexible. The war was already spreading outside Chechnya, but Basayev will make this process faster and broader."

In a recent interview broadcast on Britain's Channel 4 television, Basayev said he regarded Russian civilians as legitimate targets. "We are planning more Beslan-type operations in the future because we are forced to do so," he said.

Russian security service officials, quoted by news organizations Wednesday, said Maskhadov was killed when a grenade was thrown into a bunker where he was hiding in the village of Tolstoy-Yurt, north of the Chechen capital, Grozny.

With Basayev opposed to any form of negotiation, Russian critics of the war say the Kremlin is now locked into a conflict in which it has just killed its one possible partner for peace. "There really isn't anyone to negotiate with anymore," the Izvestia newspaper said.

Many analysts say Basayev held greater sway among Chechen fighters, but that Maskhadov, elected president of Chechnya in 1997, had enjoyed popular support among ordinary Chechens. Maskhadov received nearly 60 percent of the vote, which international monitors characterized as democratic.

In an e-mail interview last week with Radio Liberty, the U.S.-funded Russian-language broadcaster, Maskhadov said: "In my opinion, for this dialogue to begin, it would be enough to reach agreement on the following issues: guaranteeing the security of the Chechen people and protecting Russia's regional and defense interests in the North Caucasus. If we are able to open the eyes of our opponents, the Russian leaders, peace can be established."

The Kremlin has insisted that Maskhadov was intimately linked to Basayev's operations, including the Beslan attack. It contends that his apparent effort to distance himself from attacks on civilians, similar to his peace overtures, was a ploy to maintain standing as a moderate, particularly in the West.

"The whole region is becoming a hot spot," said Ida Kuklina, who co-chairs the Russian Committee of Soldiers' Mothers, a human rights group that recently took part in talks in London with a Maskhadov envoy at which both sides agreed the conflict had no military solution.

Dmitry Rogozin, leader of the nationalist Rodina Party in the Duma, questioned whether Maskhadov's death would lead to less violence. "Young militants have emerged in Chechnya," he said. They are establishing radical Islamic cells "in all republics of the North Caucasus."

And on Wednesday, Movladi Udugov, a militant ideologue, also said the possibility of talks was dead. "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," Udugov wrote on the Kavkaz Center Web site, which Maskhadov had used as a forum to press for peace talks.

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