Russian officials reacted cautiously Monday to claims from a family member and a rebel Web site that a Saudi-born rebel commander in Chechnya with links to al-Qaida had been killed.
Arab TV stations on Sunday reported that Abu Walid, also known as Abdul Aziz al-Ghamdi, had been killed by Russian government forces in Chechnya, quoting his brother. Badr Eldinne al-Chechani, a former deputy speaker of Chechen parliament and current director of the Jordan-based Arab-Caucasian Studies and Research Center, also confirmed the death in a telephone interview with The Associated Press.
Kavkaz Center, a Chechen rebel Web site, quoted a rebel source as saying Walid had been praying Friday at a rebel base in the mountains of Chechnya when a bomb exploded next to him. He died from shrapnel wounds to his spine, it said.
But Russian officials, usually keen to trumpet the deaths of prominent rebel leaders, were notably cautious in their statements Monday.
‘Guesses, rumors ... assumptions’
“We have no intention of commenting on guesses, rumors or assumptions spread by the mass media,” Col. Ilya Shabalkin, the chief spokesman for Russian forces in Chechnya, said, according to the Interfax news agency.
Akhmad Kadyrov, the Kremlin-backed Chechen president, also would not confirm Walid’s death but said “if he really has been killed, we can only rejoice,” the ITAR-Tass news agency reported.
Kadyrov said several rebels who appeared to be of Arabic origin had been killed recently. At the same time, he warned that reports of the rebel’s death could be “false information spread to allow rebel leaders to escape,” Interfax reported.
President Vladimir Putin’s representative in southern Russia, Vladimir Yakovlev, voiced similar doubts, saying that reports about Walid’s death could be a “smoke screen” to help him flee.
Walid, an explosives expert believed to be in his 30s, had been reported killed five times before, the newspaper Kommersant said Monday. Russian authorities in November offered a $100,000 reward for the information on his whereabouts, Kommersant said.
Russia’s Federal Security Service has said that Walid arrived in Chechnya after training in militant camps in Afghanistan and fighting alongside Muslims in Bosnia. It claims most of the suicide bombings in Russia in recent years were financed from abroad and organized by Abu Walid, whom it has called the head of al-Qaida’s “Arab emissaries” in Chechnya.
Predecessor poisoned by Russians
Walid became the military commander of the Chechen rebel army in late 2001, after his predecessor, a Jordanian known as Khattab, was poisoned by Russian counterterrorism forces, U.S. intelligence sources told NBC News. They described him as a radical Muslim who practices the most fundamentalist form of Islam, including a belief that any physical contact with a non-believer requires two days of fasting and prayer, said the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Walid is believed to have directed terror attacks against Russian targets dating back to a series of apartment building bombings across Russia in 1999 that prompted Putin to order troops back into Chechnya.
He also is alleged to have been been behind the suicide bomb attack in a Moscow subway in February that killed some 40 people
Walid also was believed to be a money man for the rebels — receiving and distributing funds smuggled in from abroad to support the Chechens’ fight.
Russian forces have been bogged down in Chechnya since 1999 when they returned after rebel raids on a neighboring Russian region. The Russians fought an unsuccessful 1994-96 war against separatists that ended in de facto independence for the region.
Fighting continued in Chechnya despite Moscow’s claim that the region was returning to normal. At least nine federal servicemen and local police and security officers died in the latest rebel attacks and mine explosions in the past day, according to an official in the Kremlin-backed Chechen administration who asked not be identified.