Russian authorities have scored a great victory over the Chechen rebels by killing their top leader, Abdul-Khalim Sadulaev. On June 17, Nikolai Patrushev, the director of the Federal Security Service (FSB), announced that Sadulaev had been killed in the Chechen town of Argun (Sadulaev’s birthplace) at 11:00 am that morning (Vremya novostei, June 19).
According to Patrushev, an FSB officer and a policeman (or a serviceman from the Russian Interior Forces, according to another version of Patrushev’s announcement reported in some Russian media sources) were also killed in the operation. Thirty minutes later Chechen Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov also announced Sadulaev’s death, but in his version the rebel leader was killed not in the morning, but late at night by fighters from a special regiment of the Chechen police named after Akhmad Kadyrov, the first pro-Russian president of Chechnya who was killed in May 2004. Ramzan, Akhmad’s son, added that two insurgents with Sadulaev managed to escape under the cover of darkness. He said that Chechen authorities had learned of Sadulaev’s whereabouts from a member of Sadulaev’s entourage who sold the information for 1,500 rubles (about $50) because he wanted to buy a gram of heroin (NTV, June 17).
On June 19, Kommersant newspaper provided a completely different version of the events in Argun. Sources in the local police department had told Kommersant that the house where Sadulaev was staying had been searched by a group of local FSB and police officers. Workers who were decorating a neighboring house told police that they had seen suspicious-looking bearded men hiding in the basement of the house. The FSB officers and policemen came to search and were greeted with gunfire. The FSB men and police returned fire, and two armed gunmen ran away, leaving behind one body inside the house, which was later identified as Sadulaev. Kommersant said the two insurgents had escaped by blending into the guests at a nearby wedding celebration.
On June 20, the Russian human rights organization Memorial posted the findings of its investigation on the Kavkazky Uzel website. According to Memorial, Sadulaev’s death was accidental; security officials did not know that he was in the house. Memorial reports that on June 17, about 10:00 am, a group of FSB officers came to Argun and asked a local police unit to help search a possible rebel safe house. A group of about 12 FSB officers and policemen approached the house. They immediately came under gunfire as they entered the yard. Two of the servicemen were killed, and the group quickly retreated after throwing a hand grenade into a window of the house. The grenade killed Sadulaev.
About 20 minutes later, two armed men left the house and went to another house nearby where a celebration (a wedding, according to Kommersant, but a funeral according to Memorial) was going at that time. They asked Roman Ubraimov, a guest who had come to the gathering in a minibus, to take them to the nearby village of Mesker-Urt. Yet more men boarded the minibus en route, so Ubraimov does not know exactly how many gunmen he drove out of town. As the vehicle was leaving the city, it passed an armored motorcade of Russian forces rushing to help their colleagues at the safe house. The Russians ignored the minibus, unaware that their suspects were inside. Ubraimov told the Memorial investigator that the gunmen had telephoned someone on the way and said, “We lost a brother.”
According to Prague Watchdog, a news agency, an FSB group came to Argun to check the information they got from the rebels, who had been detained in Mesker-Urt a few days earlier. On June 18 leaflets were spread across Chechnya carrying a statement from the rebels’ Sharia Court. The statement confirmed the death of the rebel chief and sentenced to death all servicemen who took part in the operation (Radio Liberty, June 19). The leaflet also confirmed the fact that the FSB had learned of Sadulaev’s location through interrogations of detained “mudjahideens.”
Later on June 17 Russian troops blocked all routes into Argun and started a mopping-up operation that continued for several days. The military was looking for the two escaped gunmen and any other rebels possibly hiding in the village. The results of the sweep are unclear (Radio Liberty, June 20).
The Memorial version of Sadulaev’s death, which looks more probable than the official and Kommersant versions, reveals that his death was fortunate accident, not the result of the well-calculated hunt. At 10:00 am, when the FSB and police group first arrived to search the house in Argun, it is likely that neither Patrushev nor Kadyrov were aware of the operation. Patrushev was taking part in a meeting of international security-service chiefs in Kazan and Kadyrov was holding a meeting of the Chechen district police chiefs in the city of Gudermes (RIA-Novosti, June 17). Yet the FSB head immediately held up Sadulaev’s death as an example of Russian success in the war against international terrorism, and Kadyrov used it to demonstrate his ability to control the Chechen republic and as evidence that the local insurgency is dying out. Neither mentioned the two gunmen who had escaped.
The Chechen insurgency already has a new top commander. Doku Umarov, an experienced field commander, will succeed Sadulaev (Radio Liberty, June 18). The war in the North Caucasus will likely continue as before, but the performance of the Russian authorities is not as great as some officials in Russia hope to see it. The shoot-out in Argun revealed gaps in the training of Russian Special Forces in Chechnya, who are unable to act properly without support from armed vehicles and cannot block the retreat of rebels during street battles. This deficiency could be a serious problem should the experienced rebel forces stage a massive attack in any city in the North Caucasus.