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Chechen vow to fight after killing

Dead militant leader's spokesman warns of 'danger' for Kremlin


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Maskhadov was Chenchnya's president after the Russian military withdrew from the republic.
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MOSCOW, Russia -- Chechen separatists have vowed to press on with their fight for independence after the killing of guerrilla leader Aslan Maskhadov.

"It is a very big loss but it is not a death blow to us, as (Russian President Vladimir) Putin thinks," spokesman Akhmed Zakayev said in London.

Zakayev, Maskhadov's main envoy in the West, signaled the killing could trigger revenge attacks.

"Aslan Maskhadov will be much more dangerous for the Kremlin leadership in death than he could have been even in life, when he was calling for peaceful dialogue," he told Reuters.

Zakayev said he believed Putin wanted Maskhadov dead so he could control Chechnya.

"Putin ... by making a personal enemy of Maskhadov, he was making a big mistake," he said, adding that a successor would be named within days.

Maskhadov, 53, one of Russia's two most wanted men, was killed Tuesday in an operation by Russia's FSB security service in the quiet village of Tolstoy-Yurt north of the Chechen capital of Grozny. (Full story)

CNN's Ryan Chilcote said that after a tip by an informant, Maskhadov had been tracked to the home of a distant relative, where he and his bodyguards were hiding in a bunker. Three or four of his closest confidants had been invited to come out and surrender -- and then accounts diverged.

Some Russian accounts said Russian officials had thrown a grenade into the bunker.

Some Chechen officials meanwhile said that they tried to persuade Maskhadov to come out alive to surrender -- one Chechen official saying they were considering giving him a job in the new Chechen government. But somehow was accidentally killed by one of his own bodyguards.

Chilcote said the death of Maskhadov -- who had a $10 million bounty on his head -- was being seen as a personal triumph for Putin and his uncompromising stand on the rebels.

The Kremlin, which had accused Maskhadov of masterminding a series of deadly attacks on civilian targets, including last year's Beslan school siege, hailed his death as a success for its policies.

But some political analysts, who saw him as a moderate leader with whom the Kremlin could negotiate, told Reuters that Maskhadov's death was a blow to any chance of peace in the region.

"Instead of the weak argument that (the Kremlin) has nothing to discuss with Maskhadov ... there is now an overwhelming conclusion: There really isn't anyone to negotiate with anymore," said the Izvestia newspaper.

Likely successor

Rebel field commander Shamil Basayev -- an even more hard-line opponent of Moscow -- was seen as most likely to replace Maskhadov as head of the self-proclaimed independent Chechen republic, Chilcote said.

Maskhadov has been a symbol of Chechen independence and a leader in its movement to break away from Russia, though he is thought to have lost influence in recent years in what has become a more militant national rebellion.

Russian TV showed pictures of a body identified as Maskhadov's Tuesday evening. A report also said Russian authorities wanted him alive.

Under Maskhadov's leadership, Chechen rebel forces won many battles against Russian forces sent to crush them in December 1994, but did not win independence from Russia.

In 1997, Maskhadov and Russian President Boris Yeltsin signed an agreement promising an end to 400 years of conflict between Moscow and the region.

Moscow, however, still insisted the region was a part of the Russian Federation. Maskhadov became a candidate for president, running against the more radical Basayev.

Maskhadov won a landslide victory in January 1997, swearing "to reinforce the independence of the Chechen state."

The election was declared fair by international monitors. Yeltsin sent his congratulations, and Russia said it wanted to rebuild relations with Chechnya.

But Russia still refused to recognize Chechnya's claim of independence.

Rival warlords

Maskhadov worked with Basayev until 1998, when Basayev established a network of military officers that soon devolved into rival warlords.

Chechen rebel forces crossed into Dagestan in 1999, and Moscow held Chechens responsible for a wave of bomb attacks across Russia.

Russia sent troops back into the republic, described Maskhadov's government as unlawful, and tried to build support for a parliament made up of Chechens in exile.

During fierce fighting, Maskhadov's government was removed from power and a pro-Moscow administration was set up.

After a deadly siege at a theater in Moscow in October 2002, Putin ruled out talks with what he called "terrorists," including Maskhadov.

He said the separatist leader had "led Chechnya to economic collapse, hunger, and the total destruction of the spiritual and social sphere in Chechnya."

After Moscow-backed Chechen President Akhmad Kadyrov was assassinated in May 2004, Maskhadov vowed to kill whoever replaced him.

Reward

Last autumn, after the horrific Beslan school siege in North Ossetia, Russia's Federal Security Service offered a reward of 300 million rubles ($10.3 million) for information that could help them hunt down Maskhadov and Basayev.

Maskhadov at the time said there was "no justification" for the seizure of the school, but also said recent terrorist attacks perpetrated by Chechens were "unavoidable" because of Russia's policies.

The siege led to the deaths of more than 300 people, including many students.

Maskhadov vowed to bring Basayev to justice over the Beslan incident, according to a posting on a Chechen rebel Web site.

"I responsibly announce that after the end of the war, individuals guilty of conducting illegal acts, including Samil Basayev, will be passed to a court of law," Maskhadov, who frequently uses that Web site to post remarks, had said.

"I announce that the leadership of the Chechen Republic and the armed forces under my control ... had nothing to do with this terrorist act."

Maskhadov was born to Chechens in exile in Kazakhstan. His family returned to Chechnya in 1957. He joined the Soviet army, serving in both Hungary and Lithuania, before becoming chief of staff of the Chechen army in 1992 after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

CNN Moscow Bureau Chief Jill Dougherty and Correspondent Ryan Chilcote contributed to this report


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