Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 101

General Gennady Troshev, commander of the North Caucasus Military District, said yesterday he was “completely sure” that Shamil Basaev, the infamous Chechen rebel field commander, is dead. Troshev said that federal forces in Chechnya had detained a rebel who was a member of Basaev’s unit and who had given evidence that Basaev died when the unit was hit by an artillery shell, killing all but four of the unit’s members. Basaev, according to this account, was close to the shell’s point of impact and thus literally blown to pieces. This, according to Troshev, explains why it has proven impossible to find even pieces of Basaev’s body to confirm his death. Troshev did not indicate when the alleged shelling incident took place (, May 22).

Troshev’s comments were the latest in a series of back-and-forth claims by various officials concerning Basaev’s death. The first came from General Anatoly Kvashnin, chief of the Russian armed forces’ general staff, who declared late last month that the Chechen rebel field commander had been killed, citing Basaev’s alleged absence from rebel radio transmissions for half a year, but quickly backed off the claim. Indeed, other top Russian officials, including General Vladimir Moltenskoi, commander of the federal forces in Chechnya, and Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, greeted with skepticism the claim that Basaev had met the same fate as his fellow field commander, Khattab, whose death was confirmed by the Chechen rebels and members of his family (see the Monitor, May 1, 6). Troshev first weighed in on the controversy on May 13, when he said he had information that Basaev was dead and urged one and all to wait for the presentation of “incontrovertible” proof. While it sounded as if Troshev was referring to specific proof, he did not present any details or concrete evidence (see the Monitor, May 15). Meanwhile, anonymous sources within the Russian military command in Chechnya report that the rebel field commander Rizvan Bachagaev, a close associate of Khattab’s successor, Abu al-Walid, is trying to take control of rebel units operating in the republic’s Vedeno district, which was previously completely under Basaev’s sole and personal control. If true, this would suggest that Basaev has either really been killed or forced to leave Chechnya (, May 22).

Whatever the case, Troshev’s apparent conviction that Basaev is dead is seemingly not shared in the Kremlin–or, at least, its representatives will not say so on record. Sergei Yastrzhembsky, President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman on issues related to Chechnya, said yesterday that he had no confirmation of Basaev’s death. Documentary evidence, he added, was necessary to make such reports “finally reliable” (, May 22). Indeed, it may turn out that the issue is never fully resolved. As noted, the Prosecutor General’s Office can close the criminal cases it launched against Basaev some years back (for terrorism and other crimes) only if it finds his body or if his remains are properly identified by forensic experts. If Basaev in fact died as the result of a nearly direct hit by an artillery shell, this may not be possible (, May 22).

Meanwhile, the federal forces in Chechnya today claimed fresh successes against the rebels. Twelve rebel fighters were reportedly killed and thirty-six arrested during special operations conducted yesterday in the republic’s Grozny, Vedeno, Nadterek, Nozhai-Yurt, Shali and Shelkov districts. One of the arrested rebels, Makhadi Idilov, reportedly participated in the January 1996 armed attacks on the Dagestani town of Kizlyar and the village of Pervomaisk, which were led by the warlord Salman Raduev (Kommersant, May 23).