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Reports Say Chechen Leader Maskhadov Killed

Aslan Maskhadov with a Chechen flag Prague, 8 March 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Russia says Chechen separatist leader Aslan Maskhadov was killed today in a gun battle with federal forces in the Chechen village of Tolstoi-Yurt. If confirmed, the action removes a man Moscow considered a terrorist but who was seen by mainstream Chechens as a moderate independence leader.

The details of what Moscow is calling a "special operation" targeting Maskhadov remain unclear.

RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Musa Khasanov filed this report from the Chechen capital Grozny: "Chechen leader Aslan Maskhadov was found [during a security operation] in a bunker built under a private house. As a result of an exchange of fire, Maskhadov was killed and his body has been identified, according to [a Russian Interior Ministry spokesman]."

Three of Maskhadov's associates also were reported detained.

Aslan Doukaev is the head of RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service and a close observer of the Chechen conflict. He says the killing of Maskhadov, if confirmed, removes one of the few Chechen leaders with an air of legitimacy -- both within mainstream Chechen society and abroad.

"Maskhadov was elected Chechnya's president in 1997 in internationally observed elections by a landslide vote. So he had an aura of legitimacy about him. He was considered to be a moderate among Chechen leaders and, in an interview with RFE/RL late last week, in what I suppose was his last interview with the media, he said he was against violence and for solving the differences with the Russian leadership through talks."

In the interview with RFE/RL last week, Maskhadov had called for face-to-face talks with Putin.

"We have been suggesting that a 30-minute, fair, face-to-face dialogue should be enough to stop this war, to explain to the president of the Russian Federation what the Chechen people really want -- I'm sure he doesn't even know that -- and also to hear from Putin personally what he wants, what Russia wants in Chechnya."

Moscow made no public reply to Maskhadov's offer.

Doukaev says the removal of Maskhadov will leave leadership in Chechnya to more radical figures: "The problem is that the most moderate leaders of the Chechen resistance are all abroad now. The commanders on the ground, with very few exceptions, are hard-line 'Wahabi-oriented' fighters, basically. The most notorious one, of course, is [Shamil] Basaev, who has taken responsibility for attacks on Russian targets like the [theater] in Moscow and then Beslan last autumn. So, it will be difficult now for Western countries to call for negotiations with Chechen resistance, because there is virtually no legitimate figure left with whom the Russians might negotiate."

Upon receiving the report of Maskhadov's death, Putin said much remains to be done to pacify the breakaway republic.

"There is still a lot of work to be done there [in Chechnya]," he said. "It is necessary to intensify our efforts in protecting the citizens of the [Chechen] republic and all of Russia against the bandits."

Maskhadov led the Chechen separatists who fought Russian forces to a standstill in a 1994-96 war and he became the republic's president after the Russian military withdrew.

Moscow blamed Maskhadov, who had a $10 million reward on his head, for a string of deadly operations in Russia.

For more on Maskhadov's death see: Analysis: What Comes After Maskhadov?

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