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Chechnya: Who Will Strike First Following Maskhadov's Death?

Is Basaev next? The reprisals that some anticipated would follow the killing on 8 March of Chechen leader and resistance forces commander Aslan Maskhadov have not taken place -- yet. A 20 April commentary posted by the website attributed the comparative lull in hostilities in recent weeks to the statutory 40-day mourning period prescribed by Islam, which ended on 17 April.

However, a Stratfor analysis dated 5 April claims that in February, Russian President Vladimir Putin finally gave the green light for the systematic elimination of all major Chechen field commanders still at large, and that in the wake of Maskhadov's death the Federal Security Service (FSB) is continuing to tighten the net around them. That analysis poses the crucial question: will the Chechen resistance succeed in launching major reprisals before the FSB manages to locate and kill them?

It is possible that the six militants encircled and killed in a Grozny apartment on 14 April, who were reportedly in possession of Strela portable shoulder-launched missiles, were preparing a major operation to mark the end of the 40-day mourning period.

On 15 April, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" quoted Chechen Prosecutor-General Vladimir Kravchenko as warning the previous day that the Chechen militants are preparing a major assault, and on 19 April the same paper quoted Major General Sergei Suvorikhin, commander of the 42nd Motorized Division, as saying that radical field commander Shamil Basaev -- probably the most experienced and ruthless of the surviving field commanders -- is regrouping.

Pro-Moscow Chechen administration head Alu Alkhanov, however, downplayed Kravchenko's warning. "Izvestiya" on 15 April quoted Alkhanov as telling journalists that "naturally illegal armed formations are not abandoning their attempts to complicate the situation in Chechnya, but they are not capable of doing anything substantial."

The 14 April operation in Grozny, however, suggests that Alkhanov may be underestimating the strength and capacity of the resistance. Initial reports of that operation identified the militants in question as subordinate to veteran field commander Doku Umarov, and some unnamed police officials even thought -- erroneously -- that Umarov himself was among those killed, according to Interfax on 16 April.
Chechen First Deputy Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov has said Basaev will be killed by 9 May.

Stratfor's list of key field commanders whom it claims Russian forces are currently hunting includes Umarov, a Saudi-born commander it identifies as Saudi-born Abu Hafs, who allegedly has links with Al-Qaeda, and Daghestani militant leader Rappani Khalilov. But Basaev appears to be the top priority, presumably because of his strategic skills in coordinating terrorist acts outside Chechnya, such as the multiple attacks last June on Interior Ministry targets in Ingushetia.

Lieutenant General Yevgenii Vnukov, commander of the Interior Ministry forces in the North Caucasus, was quoted by "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 4 April as predicting that "Basaev is next!" while Chechen First Deputy Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov assured "Komsomolskaya pravda" in an interview published on 6 April that Basaev will be killed by 9 May -- the first anniversary of the terrorist bombing, for which Basaev claimed responsibility, that killed Kadyrov's father, Akhmad-hadji Kadyrov.

In recent weeks, Russian media have reported the killing or capture of numerous separate small groups of fighters subordinate to Basaev, but "Nezavisimaya gazeta" noted on 18 April that the police and security units that Kadyrov commands have not participated in those operations, which were conducted by FSB troops.

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