Blast Kills Leader of Separatists In Chechnya

By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, July 11, 2006

MOSCOW, July 10 -- Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev, who directed the Beslan school siege and numerous other terrorist attacks in Russia in a long-running separatist campaign, was killed by an explosion in southern Russia early Monday, officials here reported.

The death of Russia's most-wanted man is a milestone for the Kremlin and its Chechen allies in their battle against an increasingly decimated rebel movement in Muslim-majority Chechnya. The guerrillas have fought two full-scale wars with an often brutal Russian army in the past 11 years, and recently have sought to spread instability and violence across other republics of the Northern Caucasus region.

"This is a just retribution for the bandits," President Vladimir Putin said in televised remarks. "For our children in Beslan . . . and for all the terrorist acts carried out in Moscow and other regions of Russia." But he warned Russians not to expect the violence to end.

In the three-day siege in 2004 of the Beslan school, 331 hostages died, most of them children. Basayev also organized the 2002 takeover of a Moscow theater in which 129 hostages died after security forces used knockout gas to end the standoff. He was also responsible for the seizure of a hospital in the southern city of Budyonnovsk in 1995 in which more than 100 people were killed.

"The death of Basayev is a symbolic act for the Russian state because he was the cruelest of enemies," said Sergei Markedonov, a specialist on Chechnya at the Institute for Political and Military Analysis in Moscow. "But Chechen separatism is only one part of the challenge to Russia now. Islamic extremism is spreading, and Basayev's liquidation is not the end of terrorism."

The bearded Basayev, frequently photographed in military cap and camouflage, emerged as the top commander in what began as a largely secular rebellion against Russian power but in recent years has moved toward radical Islam. The Russian army countered with often savage tactics, shelling villages and killing and imprisoning thousands of civilians.

"Responsibility is with the whole Russian nation, which with silent approval gives a yes," Basayev said in defense of the Beslan siege during an interview aired by ABC News last year. "Well, you can ask why I did it. To stop the killing of thousands and thousands more of Chechen children, Chechen women and the elderly. Look at the facts. They are being kidnapped, taken away, murdered."

On Monday, Russian television showed the wreckage of a truck, reportedly packed with 220 pounds of dynamite, that blew up, killing Basayev and 12 other fighters. But it remained unclear how the explosion occurred and whether it was triggered by Russian forces or mishandling by the insurgents.

Before Basayev was identified as being among the dead, Russian news media reported that a group of fighters were killed when the truck they were loading blew up at around midnight near the village of Ekazhevo in the southern Russian republic of Ingushetia. The force of the explosion shredded the truck and three cars accompanying it. Basayev was in one of the cars beside the truck, according to Ingush Deputy Prime Minister Bashir Aushev.

Later, after Basayev was identified, Federal Security Service chief Nikolai Patrushev said the rebel leader was killed in a "sweep operation" in Ingushetia, which borders Chechnya and has been the scene of increasing violence over the past two years.

Patrushev, speaking to Putin in the president's Kremlin office Monday in the presence of television cameras, said that "the effort became possible thanks to our operative actions abroad in the first place in the countries where weapons are gathered for Chechnya."

Basayev and the other fighters were plotting "a terrorist attack in Ingushetia in an attempt to put pressure on the leadership of Russia during the period when the G-8 summit is due to take place," said Patrushev, referring to the meeting of leaders of the Group of Eight countries that begins in St. Petersburg this weekend.

Putin, whom Basayev had taunted with claims that he and his men could move around the region with impunity, expressed stone-faced satisfaction at the news. "I congratulate you," he told his security chief.

The pro-Kremlin prime minister of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, was elated. Speaking on Russian television, he said: "I promised to kill him. I regret not having been able to do it myself."

A Web site, Kavkaz-Center, which has been a forum for Basayev, said that "the Chechen commander died as a result of an accidental spontaneous explosion of a truck, loaded with explosives." It added, "There was no special operation whatsoever."

The death of Basayev follows the elimination of a series of Chechen insurgent leaders over 15 months. Last month, the separatists' political leader, Abdul-Khalim Sadulayev, was killed by Russian security services and allied Chechen forces. Sadulayev had succeeded Aslan Maskhadov as leader in March 2005 after Maskhadov was killed in a bunker in a Chechen village.

The separatist cause in Chechnya has been weakened by counterinsurgency operations by the Russians and Kadyrov's forces, many of whom are former rebels who accepted an amnesty offer and joined Chechen forces loyal to the Kremlin.

Basayev was among the most controversial and merciless of the Chechen fighters because of his history of targeting civilians, a tactic that caused divisions among the militants. Sadulayev, a Muslim cleric, denounced the killing of civilians and said he and Basayev had clashed on the issue of hostage-taking in the wake of the Beslan siege.

Basayev was born in Chechnya in 1965 and after finishing high school served two years in the Soviet military. He failed to get into law school in Moscow, flunked out of a land management institute in 1987 and became a computer salesman in Moscow. He reportedly took to the barricades to defend President Boris Yeltsin in 1991 when Communist hard-liners tried to stage a coup.

When Chechen leader Dzhokhar Dudayev declared independence from Russia in 1991, Basayev took part in the first of a series of high-profile acts that drew international attention to the Chechen cause. In November 1991, as Russian troops massed on Chechnya's border, Basayev and two others hijacked an Aeroflot flight to Turkey. The hijacking was resolved, and Basayev and his fellow hijackers were allowed safe passage back to Chechnya.

In the first Chechen war of 1994-96, Basayev emerged as one of the rebels' top field commanders.

In 1995, he lost 11 members of his immediate family, including his first wife, when a Russian plane bombed his home town. By 1996 he was commander of the Chechen armed forces, which fought the Russians to a standstill that year. Chechnya become all but independent. Basayev ran for the presidency but lost. In 1998 he was briefly prime minister.

In 1999, increasingly motivated by radical Islam, he led a force into the neighboring republic of Dagestan in a bid to unite it with Chechnya. That operation was one of the triggers for the second Chechen war, which began later that year. The following year he lost a foot when he stepped on a land mine.

He increasingly focused on orchestrating terrorist attacks in Moscow and other parts of Russia outside Chechnya. The Russians put a $10 million bounty on his head, but to no avail. He mocked them for their failures. "Don't tell me they're trying to find me," he said last year. "I'm trying to find them."

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