Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 6 Issue: 11

Press reports and official statements concerning the circumstances of Aslan Maskhadov’s death, far from clearing things up, made them even murkier. In his May 8, Ilya Shabalkin, spokesman for the federal forces in the North Caucasus, said the rebel leader had been killed when security forces used explosives to penetrate the bunker beneath a house in the village of Tolstoi-Yurt in which Maskhadov was hiding with three associates. Chechen First Deputy Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov, meanwhile, claimed that Maskhadov was killed when a bodyguard who was next to him in the cramped bunker “carelessly handled his gun.” Kadyrov also claimed that those who took part in the operation against Maskhadov had planned to take him prisoner, not to kill him. The following day, however, Kommersant quoted Chechen Interior Minister Ruslan Alkhanov as saying that Maskahdov was killed when commandos tossed grenades into the bunker after Maskhadov refused to surrender. On March 10, Izvestia quoted Kadyrov as saying that he had been “joking” when he said that Maskhadov was accidentally shot and killed by his own bodyguard. Kadyrov, however, refused to discuss exactly how Maskhadov was killed. Meanwhile, the Rossia state television on March 13 broadcast an interview with a Federal Security Service (FSB) commando who participated in the operation against Maskhadov, who said that commandos did not negotiate with the rebel leader before blowing up his bunker because he was wearing a suicide bomber’s belt and they assumed he would not surrender.

In an article published in Moskovsky komsomlets on March 15, Vadim Rechkalov and Irina Kuksenkova speculated that Maskhadov may have been killed by Ramzan Kadyrov’s people after cutting a deal with Kadyrov, under the terms of which Maskhadov would publicly renounce his post as president of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, and he and his family would be allowed to leave Chechnya unmolested and move abroad. The journalists speculated that Maskhadov was captured and shot to death just before leaving the country, after which his body was taken to Tolstoi-Yurt and “a special operation was staged.” Rechkalov and Kuksenkova, who visited the house in Tolstoi-Yurt where Maskhadov’s body was found, noted that the bunker in which Maskhadov and three associates had ostensibly lived since October had no ventilation. They quoted Yakha Yusupova, the wife of the house’s owner, who denied that Maskhadov had been there, as saying that “you start to suffocate very quickly” in the bunker. In addition, the two reporters noted that the Yusopovs’ house was “absolutely not adapted” for use as a safe house because it had no escape exits in the event of a zachistka, or mopping up raid by security forces. “This contradicts the tactics that the militants have developed,” they wrote.

It should be noted that reported on March 8, the day the Russian military announced Maskhadov had been killed, that the rebel leader and several of his bodyguards had in fact been killed two days earlier – on March 6 – by gunmen loyal to Ramzan Kadyrov after a Nozhai-Yurt district resident gave away the rebel leader’s hiding place for a “tidy sum of money.” According to the independent website, Kadyrov asked the federal authorities to attribute Maskhadov’s death to other agencies (see Chechnya Weekly, March 9).

The likelihood that more clues concerning how Maskhadov died might be found was reduced greatly on March 14, when Russian authorities announced that they had blown up the house in Tolstoi-Yurt where Maskhadov allegedly hid because they feared booby traps. The Associated Press quoted Col. General Arkady Yedelev, chief of the federal headquarters for the military campaign in Chechnya, as saying that demolition experts inspecting the bunker had discovered and detonated a box that contained documents and was ridden with explosives. “The team of investigators decided to blow up the entire house to avoid such surprises in the future,” Yedelev said in a statement. Novaya gazeta correspondent Anna Politkovskaya told the AP that the destruction of the house apparently was intended to destroy any evidence that could cast doubt on official accounts of the killing. “There is nothing left now to question the official version of events,” she said. Aleksandr Petrov of Human Rights Watch’s Moscow office told the news agency that federal authorities in the past had blown up houses in Chechnya that belonged to militants who participated in terror attacks and that the practice has drawn strong criticism from international rights groups. “If the authorities blew up the house to punish the house owners, it’s a bad move,” Petrov said.

Meanwhile, the FSB said in a statement released on March 15 that it had paid a promised $10 million for information that led to the discovery and killing of Maskhadov to citizens who had “helped to pinpoint Maskhadov’s exact whereabouts and to carry out the special operation,” RIA Novosti reported. “These citizens were paid the financial recompense in full,” the FSB said. “If need be these citizens will be provided with help in moving to a different region of Russia or to a Muslim country.” The head of the FSB’s public relations department, Colonel Sergei Ignatchenko, told the news agency that the FSB would pay $10 million to those providing information on the whereabouts of Chechen rebel warlord Shamil Basaev. The FSB offered bounties of $10 million each for Maskhadov and Basaev following the September 2004 Beslan school massacre. Maskhadov denied involvement in that attack, while Basaev claimed responsibility for it.

Umar Khanbiev, the Chechen rebel government’s general representative abroad, called the idea that Chechens had revealed Maskhadov’s whereabouts for the reward money “complete nonsense,” Kommersant reported on March 16. “Yes, the president [Maskhadov] had enemies, including [some] among [the] local inhabitants,” he told the newspaper. “They could shoot him, but sell him out – never.” According to Kommersant, Khanbiev said that Chechens would not involve themselves in such a deal with the special services because they did not want the eternal shame that such “treachery” would bring on themselves, their families and clans. He said the theory that Maskhadov was killed elsewhere and then taken to Tolstoi-Yurt originated with Tolstoi-Yurt residents who “wanted to deflect the disgrace of the president of Ichkeria having been killed in their village.”