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More Chechen Separatist Representatives Confirm Dudayev's Death

Grozny, April 24 (RFE/RL) - Several top Chechen separatist officials now also report that Chechen rebel leader Dzhokhar Dudayev is dead.

Russian authorities are investigating Dudayev's fate, but there is no official confirmation so far from the Russian side.

Ruslan Katuyev, leader of the Party of National Independence of Chechnya, told RFE/RL that Dudayev had been killed in a Russian rocket attack during the weekend. And influential Field Commander Akhmed Zakayev also told our correspondent in Chechnya that Dudayev died of wounds near the village of Gekhi-Chu, 30 kilometers south of Grozny.

Dudayev's representative in Moscow, Vagap Tutakov, told Interfax today it was certain that Dudayev had died. Yesterday he had denied the report and the top Chechen military Field Commander Shamil Basayev said last night on rebel television that Chechnya is observing three days of mourning for Dudayev.

Itar-Tass quoted Katuyev as saying that field commanders have vowed to recognize Dudayev's deputy, Zelimkhan Yandarbiev, as their leader. Basayev earlier had said the same.

Western analysts say that Dudayev's death could have major -though as yet unpredictable- consequences on the Russian-Chechen military conflict, particularly if separatist fighter would splinter, making peace negotiations with Moscow more difficult.

But Itar-Tass quoted Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin as saying that the Russian government "will not change its plans" concerning a peaceful settlement." Chernomyrdin said he is ready to "negotiate with anyone, in order to bring peace to Chechnya." Russian President Boris Yeltsin played down earlier the impact of Dudayev's reported death. He said that "with or without Dudayev, we will wind up everything in Chechnya with peace."

The political advisor to Tatar president Mintimer Shaimiyev -Rafael Khakimov- said today "much will depend on Moscow's attitude" and on its will to scale down military activities in Chechnya. Shaimiyev is one of the politicians who have recently tried to act as intermediaries in peace negotiations between Moscow and Dudayev.

There are conflicting reports concerning Dudayev's burial. Field commander Zakayev told RFE/RL that Dudayev was buried yesterday night in the Souther-Chechen village of Shalazhi and that himself and Basayev were present. But another Chechen official, Khozh Akhmed Yerikanov, says that Dudayev's funeral would be today in the same village, where Dudayev's mother is buried.