Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said yesterday that he had no reliable information that Chechen rebel field commander Shamil Basaev had been killed. “I don’t have information confirming that he is dead, but I do not doubt that it will happen sooner or later,” Ivanov said. The defense minister made his comments during a meeting that he and Federal Security Service (FSB) Director Nikolai Patrushev held at Khankala, the main Russian military base in Chechnya, with the commanders of the federal forces there and Akhmad Kadyrov, head of Chechnya’s pro-Moscow administration (NTVru.com, May 5). Ivanov made his comment in reference to those made late last month by General Anatoly Kvashnin, chief of the Russian armed forces staff. On April 30, Kvashnin claimed that Basaev had been “eliminated” but that his body had “not yet been found.” Later that same day Kvashnin backtracked, saying that the only indication Basaev might be dead was the fact that the rebel field commander had not “been heard of either in action or on the radio for half a year” and that while it was possible Basaev was dead, the Russian military had “no facts to back this up” (see the Monitor, May 1).
While the Russian authorities have now backed off claims concerning Basaev’s death, they recently scored a major victory, both on the propaganda battlefield and the real one, with the death of Khattab, the Saudi-born Chechen rebel warlord (see the Monitor, April 26, 29). In addition, the Russian authorities claimed last week that they had killed three top commanders subordinated to Aslan Maskhadov, the Chechen rebel leader, in an ambush. The rebels, however, said the claim concerning the three commanders was false (see the Monitor, May 3). On top of all this, thirty-seven heavily armed rebels from various parts of Chechnya reportedly traveled Saturday (May 4) to Tsentroe, Kadyrov’s hometown, where they surrendered their weapons on the town square right in front of the pro-Moscow leader’s home. General Vladimir Moltenskoi, commander of the federal forces in Chechnya, was present and promised the surrendering rebels that those who had not committed crimes would be reintegrated into society. Kadyrov, for his part, gave each of the surrendering rebels a document guaranteeing their immunity from arrest while they were being vetted. The event was shown on Russia’s two state-controlled television channels, ORT and RTR (Kommersant, May 6).
The reaction of the Chechen rebel media to the putative surrender of the thirty-seven rebels was mixed. The Chechen.org website dismissed it as a stage-managed “spectacle,” in which Kadyrov’s own guards “surrendered” (Chechen.org, May 4). The Chechenpress news agency said that even if the surrender really did take place, it was a Pyrrhic victory. Interestingly, the tone of the commentary by Chechenpress, which represents the views of Maskhadov, gave some credence to the Russian authorities repeated claims that the rebels are losing militarily. The commentary asked, for example, whether Russia was ready for a protracted “spiritual resistance” from “an entire people” (Chechenpress.com, May 6). Today, meanwhile, the Gazeta.ru website reported that fighters loyal to Shamil Basaev were ready to surrender. According to the website, a field commander named Geliskhanov, who headed the state security department in the government of Djohar Dudaev, was among those ready to put down their weapons (Gazeta.ru, May 6). Late last month, Said-Magomed Chupalaev, a former close associate and friend of Basaev, reportedly called on rebels to stop resisting the federal forces, return to civilian life and direct their energies toward rebuilding Chechnya’s economy (see the Monitor, May 1).
At the same time, there has been no apparent letup in rebel guerrilla activity. Yesterday, the deputy military commandant in the town of Argun, Kharvani Idrisov, was kidnapped from his home by armed invaders, and an attempt was made on the life of an aide to the Shali district prosecutor. The aide, identified only by his last name, Karunnikov, was shot and wounded. Meanwhile, federal checkpoints were fired on in the Oktyabrsk and Zavodsk districts of Djohar (Grozny), the Chechen capital, and in the towns of Argun and Vedeno. No one was reportedly killed or injured in the attacks (Gazeta.ru, Polit.ru, May 6).
During yesterday’s meeting in Khankala of Russian and pro-Moscow Chechen officials, Defense Minister Ivanov also sharply criticized Turkey, charging that the authorities there had shown “leniency, to put it mildly, toward extremists who fought in Chechnya or who are now supporting those fighting on the side of the illegal armed formations” and had not taken the necessary steps against them. “Verbally, everyone is now fighting terrorism,” Ivanov said. “Turkey, for example, plans to head the peacekeeping contingent in Afghanistan. We welcome this. But at the same time there is information that the Turkish authorities a very short time ago considered the question of giving Movladi Udugov, who is [on the list of internationally wanted criminals], permission to enter the country [Turkey].” Udugov is a leading member of the Chechen rebel movement. Such examples are evidence of a double standard, the Russian defense minister said (NTVru.com, May 5).
Ivanov’s comments came just a day after a man armed with a Kalashnikov took a group of tourists hostage at the Marmara Hotel in Istanbul. The gunman, identified as Mustafa Yildirim, a Turk, reportedly took the hostages to protest Russia’s actions in Chechnya. His brother was quoted as saying the gunman had fought in Chechnya against the Russians in 1997. All thirteen hostages, who included Japanese, Bulgarians and Turks, were released unharmed and the gunman was taken into custody after an 80-minute standoff (AP, May 4).
POLITICAL ARMISTICE TAKING HOLD IN MOLDOVA.