Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 6 Issue: 19

Russian news agencies reported on May 15-16 that the former rebel vice-president, Vakha Arsanov, was killed in a security operation in Grozny’s Staropromyslovsky district on May 15. Chechen Deputy Interior Minister Sultan Satuev said that four militants, including Arsanov, were killed in a sweep of the village of Ivanovo after they “offered resistance to government forces,” Interfax reported.

Ensuing reports, however, were contradictory. Interfax on May 17 quoted the head of the Staropromyslovsky district Interior Ministry department, Shamkhan Denilkhanov, who put forward a version of what happened and repeated the claim that Arsanov had been killed, Interfax reported on May 17. “We received information from several independent sources that a group of [rebel] fighters were hiding in house, among whom was Arsanov,” he said. “And, having cross-checked the information and having been convinced that it was true, a special operation was set up and carried out…There is practically no doubt that Vakha Arsanov was annihilated. He was identified by people who had known Arsanov during various periods.” Denilkhanov said those carrying out the operation “tried to take the fighters alive, but received heavy fire and [it] was necessary to open fire in return in order to avoid heavy casualties among the law-enforcement staff.”

But Chechnya’s prosecutor, Vladimir Kravchenko, was neither able to confirm nor deny that Arsanov was killed in the Staropromyslovsky operation on March 15. “We have ordered DNA tests and examinations of fingerprints which will help identify the person who was killed,” Kravchenko told Interfax on May 16. He added that the bodies of four other militants killed in the operation were burned too badly to be identified. Chechnya’s military commandant, Gen.-Lieutenant Grigory Fomenko, said on May 16 that it was “premature” to state “categorically” that Arsanov was among those killed in the operation, RIA Novosti reported.

Meanwhile, Interfax quoted “Chechen law-enforcement sources” as saying they doubted Arsanov was among the militants killed in the operation. Likewise, the separatist Kavkazcenter website reported on May 17 that its sources in Chechnya told it that reports of Arsanov’s death “cannot be confirmed” and that members of his family “said that he is alright.” “No-one knows Arsanov’s whereabouts,” Kavkazcenter wrote. “Neither his representatives nor his relatives have so far made any public comments or statements although all kinds of rumors are being spread about his fate. One rumor says that Vakha Arsanov has been taken hostage by [Chechen First Deputy Prime Minister] Ramzan Kadyrov. According to other rumors, Arsanov is free in Chechnya (which has been indirectly confirmed by his relatives) or Arsanov was killed in an exchange of fire on the night of May 15.”

For its part, Kommersant reported on May 16 that Arsanov was killed because he was unable to reach an agreement with the leaders of Chechnya’s “security structures” about surrendering voluntarily. According to the newspaper, members of the Akhmad Kadyrov special police regiment, which is made up mainly of ex-rebels, took part in the raid and recognized Arsanov’s body. A passport with the name Abdul Khamidov and issued by a Grozny district police department was found on the body, the newspaper reported.

Kommersant also noted that Vakha Arsanov had not participated in the second Chechen war, having gone to Georgia for treatment of an injured spine just before the war started and returning to Chechnya in 2001, after which Aslan Maskhadov removed him from his post for not participating in combat operations. According to the Chechen branch of the Federal Security Service (FSB), Chechen OMON fighters captured Arsanov in January of this year, after which he was transferred to Tsentoroi, the native village of Ramzan Kadyrov, whose men tried to convince Arsanov to switch sides. According to Kommersant, Arsanov agreed to give up along with “a whole detachment of gunmen” if he was chosen to be a negotiator between the pro-Moscow Chechen authorities and the rebel leadership. In this account, Arsanov was released but his services were “no longer required” following the killing of Maskhadov on March 8. “It is possible that the president’s death made Vakha Arsanov return to the gunmen,” the newspaper wrote. “In any case, he was killed in the settlement of Ivanovo, where his detachment operated successfully during the first war.”

Kommersant also interviewed the acting chairman of the Chechen separatist parliament, Salim Bashaev, who told the newspaper that he had only learned of Arsanov’s death from the interviewer and thus did not know what had happened. Still, Bashaev said the rebels had information that Arsanov had been “in federal captivity” and that his captors tried to make him take part in a roundtable on Chechnya in Strasbourg sponsored by the Council of Europe that took place in March. “I cannot rule out that the reason for his death was his refusal to cooperate in this matter.” Bashaev said Russian forces were trying to eliminate anyone who might represent the legitimate “Ichkerian” leadership and thus “the subject of talks is closed.” Still, he said that the conflict could be ended only by negotiations.

Akmed Zakaev, special representative of separatist president Abdul-Khalim Sadulaev, said in a statement posted on the Chechenpress website on May 16 that while reports about Arsanov’s death were “fragmentary and contradictory,” the “criminal habits of the occupation formations and their armed accomplices in Chechnya force one to assume the most tragic version of what happened.”

According to Zakaev, Arsanov was captured in mid-January of this year in the village of Chernoreche on the western outskirts of Grozny and then imprisoned in Ramzan Kadyrov’s private prison in Tsentoroi. “There were reports that the former vice-president of the ChRI [Chechen Republic of Ichkeria] was subjected to torture in order to incline him toward cooperating with the occupiers – that is, to force him to make anti-Chechen political declarations and take part in the well-known ‘roundtable’ staged by certain representatives of PACE [the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe],” Zakaev wrote. “I would like in this connection to remind individual members of PACE: in no small measure, precisely their cynical games and dramatizations around the problem of peacefully resolving the Russian-Chechen conflict increase the number of victims among the inhabitants of Chechnya, the number of those [subjected to] hostage-taking and extra-judicial execution.” Zakaev warned the international community against “encouraging the crimes against humanity committed by the Chekist clique of Putin,” concluding: “History teaches that he who concludes a pact with the Devil becomes a victim of the Devil. And rightly.”