Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 102

At the beginning of the week, a number of reports–some backed with evidence, others of a more hypothetical nature–appeared in the Russian press concerning the death of the Chechen rebel movement. At least one of the reports, however, was confirmed, concerning the death of rebel field commander Abu Movsaev. Footage of his body was shown on various Russian television channels (NTV, Russian agencies, May 23).

Movsaev, who participated with field commander Shamil Basaev in the 1995 terrorist raid on the Stavropol krai town of Budennovsk, was one of the more sinister figures in the Chechen rebel movement. Having worked as an ordinary policeman during the Soviet period, Movsaev became the head of the Chechen state security department in 1994. This department regularly tortured captives, often psychologically torturing suspects (including journalists) by using firing squads which had only blanks. Movsaev reportedly enjoyed dealing personally with captured “spies,” many of whom were in fact innocent. For example, he showed the Monitor’s correspondent a sabre, boasting that he cut off the heads of spies with one blow.

Meanwhile, the Russian military reportedly learned from radio intercepts that Shamil Basaev, who lost a foot while escaping through a minefield earlier this year, had died of gangrene. The Kremlin, however, is apparently not yet certain the report is true. Sergei Yastrzhembsky, President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman on Chechnya, would neither confirm nor deny the reports of Basaev’s death. Among the rebel information sources, the more radical ones have reported that Basaev and his circle are holding scheduled meetings and making important decisions, and did not comment on the reports of the rebel leader’s death. Meanwhile, another separatist leader, Akhment Zakaev told the EFE agency that Basaev had not denied but was indeed suffering from gangrene (Russian agencies, EFE, May 20).

Shamil Basaev is–or was–one of the most influential Chechen rebel field commanders. He became known internationally after the June 1995 terrorist raid on the town of Budennovsk, during which he and his men took over a hospital and held hostages, and more than 100 civilians were killed. In February of this year, Basaev stepped on a mine while escaping encirclement by federal forces near the Chechen capital and lost a foot. Gangrene set in. If the infamous rebel warlord indeed has died, it would be a major victory for the Russian forces, given that Basaev was among the most influential of the Chechen rebel leaders.

Meanwhile, Sergei Yastrzhembsky claimed that about a week ago, a meeting took place in the Afghan town of Mazari-Sharif between representatives of Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov and a number of major international terrorists, including Osama bin Laden. According to Yastrzhembsky, Maskhadov sent a written request to the leaders of Afghanistan’s Taliban movement to provide immediate assistance to the Chechen fighters. Yastrzhembsky did not rule out the possibility of “pre-emptive” strikes against terrorist training camps in Afghanistan if “there arises a real threat to the national interests of Russia and the states of our allies located in that region.”

The presidential spokesman also accused the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) of having had secret negotiations with Chechen separatist leaders. Yastrzhembsky claimed to know of a telephone conversation between PACE chairman Lord Russell-Johnston and Maskhadov, which, he said, suggested that “secret negotiations are going on behind Russia’s back with the goal of producing a coordinated position on forcing Russia into negotiations and into ending its counterterrorist operation” (Russian agencies, May 22). Russell-Johnston called the charge of secret negotiations “utter nonsense,” saying that he had informed Moscow about his conversations with Maskhadov–which, he claimed, were aimed at securing the release of Russian prisoners held by the Chechens (Associated Press, May 23).