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Chechen warlord’s death cloaked in mystery

Questions were raised Tuesday over what caused the death of  Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev, responsible for modern Russia’s worst terrorist attacks. Basayev was killed Monday when a truck exploded in his convoy, officials said.
Police officers survey the wreckage of a truck and cars blown up where Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev and other rebels were killed Monday in a special operation in the Ingush village of Ekazhevo.
Police officers survey the wreckage of a truck and cars blown up where Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev and other rebels were killed Monday in a special operation in the Ingush village of Ekazhevo.Kazbek Vakhayev / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The death of Russia’s most-wanted man, Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev, ends a long hunt for the fugitive, but questions were raised Tuesday over what caused the dynamite-filled truck next to his car to explode.

Rebels close to Basayev said the explosion that caused his death Monday was an accident, but reports also circulated of a targeted missile strike and of a secret services operation that had an agent detonating the truck’s explosives.

Russia’s defense minister hailed the death of “our bin Laden” as a “landmark event.” Still, Sergei Ivanov warned that the 12-year struggle with Chechen separatist rebels — which has spread across the impoverished and mainly Muslim North Caucasus in Russia’s south — was not over.

“The killing of that terrorist doesn’t mean that the fight against militants is over,” Ivanov said during a trip to the conflict-scarred Chechen regional capital, Grozny. “There is still work to do, and it’s being done.”

Russian newspapers reported Tuesday that Basayev’s death resulted from a carefully planned secret services operation that used a shipment of weapons and explosives to ensnare the warlord just outside the main Ingush city of Nazran.

Unidentified security officials quoted by the Vremya Novostei daily said the preparations took six months. Intelligence agents planted in Basayev’s entourage led him to a trap in which Russian special services detonated the explosives at the moment when he got near the truck, the officials said.

The Komosmolskaya Pravda daily reported the undercover agent who was traveling in Basayev’s convoy received a payment of up to $500,000.

Missile strike as cause?
But there was also a report of a missile strike. The ITAR-Tass news agency, citing an unidentified law enforcement official in southern Russia, reported Tuesday that Basayev was killed by a rocket that homed in on his phone — the method used to kill Chechen separatist President Dzhokhar Dudayev in 1996.

Chechen rebel envoy Akhmed Zakayev denied that Basayev’s killing occurred during a special operation and insisted Monday’s explosion was an accident. He said local policemen began to suspect Basayev might be among the dead when they found fragments of an artificial leg.

Basayev lost a leg while fleeing Russian forces through a minefield on the outskirts of Grozny in 1999.

“According to information I received from Chechnya, it is absolutely certain that the explosion happened accidentally. There was no special operation as they claim,” Zakayev told The Associated Press by telephone from London.

Nazir Yevloyev, a spokesman for regional police in Ingushetia, told the AP that remains of 10 charred bodies, 10,000 Kalashnikov rounds and several rocket-propelled grenades were collected from the explosion site.

He said that both Interior Ministry and Federal Security Service forces took part in the operation.

Local police officials in Ingushetia who inspected the explosion site told the AP that all the signs suggested it was an accidental explosion of dynamite in the truck, not a missile strike. And officials’ initial accounts of the blast, before Basayev’s death was confirmed, described it as an accidental detonation.

Russia's embarrassment
The differing accounts undermine claims that Russia’s intelligence capabilities, rather than a stroke of luck, rid the country of the feared warlord.

The inability to hunt down Basayev was a long-standing embarrassment for Russia, as he took responsibility for one terror attack after another, including the Beslan school hostage-taking in September 2004 that killed more than 330 people.

Russian forces repeatedly claimed to have reliable tips on Basayev’s location but failed to catch him despite an offer of a $10 million reward and plastic surgery to anyone providing information leading to his death.

One factor that protected him was his popularity among many residents of the restive North Caucasus, as he joined a succession of Chechen heroes who had challenged Russian domination. According to Russian law, his body would be buried in secret; family funerals are prohibited for those deemed to be terrorists, in part to avoid creating potential sites of pilgrimage.

On Tuesday, relatives of those killed in Beslan complained that the remains of Basayev and the other rebels were being kept in a morgue in the southern city of Vladikavkaz, just 10 miles from the school. Officials have not said where the remains are.

In Grozny, residents were relieved at Basayev’s death, but wondered why he had managed to managed to stay alive for so long. There were long-standing rumors the rebel warlord had shadowy ties to Russian intelligence.

“It’s strange that they hadn’t eliminated Basayev before, as most of his close circle was eliminated long ago. Nevertheless, I am glad that he won’t present any danger to anybody anymore,” said Satsita, a hair stylist who declined to give her last name out of concern for her safety.

Basayev was the most notorious of the Chechen warlords, eluding Russian forces for years despite Kremlin vows to hunt him down and an offer of $10 million and plastic surgery to anyone providing information leading to his death

Fanatical drive, with help
His grim, decade-long record of killing both civilians and soldiers reflected fanatical determination — a ferocity Russia has said was bolstered by help from international terrorist networks such as al-Qaida. Washington declared Basayev a terrorist and threat to the United States.

Basayev began his campaign even before the Soviet Union’s demise — starting with the hijack of an airliner in 1991 — to attract interest in the separatist cause of Chechnya, a predominantly Muslim region in the Caucasus Mountains.

After Russian forces entered Chechnya in 1994, his exploits became more prominent. Basayev’s forces buried a container of radioactive material in a Moscow park in 1995 — a warning of the mayhem they could inflict if they chose.

The Budyonnovsk hospital raid brought Basayev fame at home. When Russian troops pulled out in 1996 and Chechnya prepared to elect a president to lead it to de facto independence, Basayev ran for the job.