Basayev's Mysterious Death Brings Hope

The death of the most notorious Chechen warlord suggests an end to conflict in the North Caucasus could be in sight.

Basayev's Mysterious Death Brings Hope

The death of the most notorious Chechen warlord suggests an end to conflict in the North Caucasus could be in sight.

Thursday, 20 July, 2006
Russia’s most wanted man, Chechen militant leader Shamil Basayev may have met his end by accident rather than in a deliberate hit as Russian leaders claim, but his death certainly marks a major victory for Moscow and could result in the armed conflict beginning to ebb away.

Ground zero for this major development is the edge of Ali-Yurt, a small village in Ingushetia not far from the border with Chechnya. A row of unfinished houses still lacking doors and windows stands here, facing a road that is little more than a track, a hillside, a ravine, some fields and trees.

Few people live in this secluded spot, even though it is just five kilometres from the capital of Ingushetia, Magas. The golden dome of the presidential palace can be seen from here glimmering in the distance, and Ingushetia’s main city Nazran is not much further away.

At half past midnight on July 10, a powerful explosion shook the last of these houses, followed by a sound like a burst of automatic gunfire, which later turned out to be shells going off in rapid succession. The first blast was so loud that it could be heard in Nazran.

Within 10 or 15 minutes, according to locals, the security services had arrived and sealed off the area.

Local policemen who were among the first to arrive said four dead bodies dressed in black were found at the scene, two of them relatively unscathed and the other two mutilated. They also discovered the wreckage of a Kamaz lorry and two Zhiguli (or Lada) cars.

Two of the dead men were identified quickly from their ID papers as Tarhan Ganizhev and Isa Kushtov. The identities of the other two were unclear, but preliminary investigations indicated that they were killed when the explosives one of them was handling blew up.

Only next morning did rumours begin to circulate that one of the two unidentified corpses was none other than famous Chechen militant Shamil Basayev, on the run from the Russian authorities for more than 12 years. An official from Ingushetia’s FSB security service told IWPR that Basayev had been identified because he was missing his lower leg – blown off by a mine in 2000 – although the prosthetic limb had not been found.

Then, at four in the afternoon, the head of the Russian FSB, Nikolai Patrushev, reported to President Vladimir Putin that “in the course of a special operation in Ingushetia, Shamil Basayev and a whole series of bandits were eliminated”.

Patrushev said the men had been planning to carry out an attack inside Ingushetia, and to “use this act of terrorism and sabotage to put pressure on the Russian leadership at a time when the G-8 summit is in preparation”.

The media were not shown Basayev’s body, but were told that he had been identified from his head. Body tissue has been sent for DNA testing to a laboratory in Rostov-on-Don.

The lack of a body immediately raised doubts in the minds of local people.

“Basayev has been ‘killed’ lots of time, and every time he has turned up alive,” said taxi-driver Bislan Yevloyev. “Basayev himself wouldn’t have gone to a meeting like that. Are they trying to tell us he doesn’t have any assistants?”

However, later the same day, the main North Caucasian Islamist website Kavkaz Center confirmed news of Basayev’s death, calling him a “martyr”.

At the same time, a series of reports in the Russian media then began suggesting that Basayev died in a operation that the security forces had planned in advance. There was speculation that the truck was sabotaged by the Russians, or that the explosion was triggered by a remote-controlled rocket.

Journalists were allowed to view the explosion site later in the evening, once the remaining unexploded shells had been destroyed. Army engineers said they blew up around 185 shells that were left after 50 went off in the night-time blasts.

The explosion site was strewn with pieces of metal from the destroyed truck, empty shell-cases and a few bloody pillows. The neighbouring house had suffered badly and there was a big hole in the brick wall of its courtyard. But there was no crater in the ground, suggesting the lorry had not yet been fully loaded up and that the blast had gone upwards and sideways.

Chechnya’s pro-Moscow prime minister Ramzan Kadyrov greeted the news joyfully, his only regret being that “I should have killed him”.

Kadyrov said that it now only remained for Doku Umarov, recently elected president by the rebels, to be killed and the war would be over.

Spokesmen for the Chechen pro-independence government - even those had who distanced themselves from Basayev, such as foreign minister Akhmed Zakayev who is now resident in London - said the armed struggle against Russian forces would continue.

However, many experts agree that the death of Basayev will fundamentally change the situation in the North Caucasus.

“One of the last people who personified the resistance - for want of a better word - that was formed in the time of [Jokhar] Dudayev [Chechnya’s first pro-independence president] has now gone,” said Andrei Babitsky of Radio Liberty, who has covered Chechnya intensively and whose interview with Basayev for ABC Television last year sparked controversy.

“The work which Basayev was cultivating with militant groups and underground groups in neighbouring republics of the North Caucasus will weaken significantly.”

Babitsky went on, “In Chechnya itself there will be no substantial changes. What are termed ‘military actions’, these acts of sabotage, are in a general state of decline.”

Ilya Maksakov, a Caucasus expert and deputy director of the Agency of National News, “With the removal of Basayev, Chechnya really can breathe freely. I will even dare to disbelieve the many experts who ask me to remember the past historical experience of Caucasian conflicts.”

“The situation is now fundamentally different. Akhmat Kadyrov said the war would end when there are no famous personalities left,” said Maksakov, referring to the late pro-Moscow president of Chechnya who was assassinated by the rebels. “And they have all gone now.”

Chechen political analyst Edilbek Khasmagomadov found a kind of “supreme justice” in the unheroic manner of Basaev’s death, after his relentless self-promotion as a legendary resistance leader.

Khasmagomadov said Basayev’s reputation might have been over-inflated by his PR skills, “All the major acts of terrorism of the last few years for which Basayev took responsibility were planned from the beginning as propaganda for himself and his abilities.”

Predicting that other figures would continue where the late rebel commander left off, Khasmagomadov noted, “Basayev was not the cause of instability in the North Caucasus. He merely exploited the situation; he did not create it.”

In Chechnya, few people had words of sympathy for the dead man.

Luiza Asayeva, a 34-year-old accountant living in Grozny, said she had been affected by the deaths of other pro-independence leaders such as former president Aslan Maskhadov and well-known commander Ruslan Gelayev – but not by Basayev’s demise.

“I took the death of Maskhadov to heart in purely human terms,” she said. “The same thing happened with the death of Gelayev – I thought that if we could have come to terms with him, it would have been very beneficial. But Basayev did not inspire any human sympathy.

Asayeva said she believed Basayev’s departure would mean an end to the era of conflict.

“The war had virtually stopped anyway. But this is the complete end,” she said. “His position, his level, his authority – in a negative way - none of the other rebel leaders has any of that.

“There won’t be another Basayev.”

Timur Aliev is IWPR’s Chechnya editor, based in Nazran.

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