Russians Seize Maskhadov's 'Right-hand Man'

A leading Chechen commander is arrested by federal security forces for the third time in just over a year

Russians Seize Maskhadov's 'Right-hand Man'

A leading Chechen commander is arrested by federal security forces for the third time in just over a year

Mystery shrouds the arrest of Chechen security minister Turpal Atgeriev, one of Russia's most wanted men, who is currently languishing in Lefortovo Prison.


Last week, government sources were unable to agree how long Atgeriev had actually been in custody while the Federal Security Service (FSB) - usually swift to trumpet any coup against the Chechen rebels - has refused to confirm that he has been arrested at all.


The situation has prompted many observers to speculate that the security forces are hoping to strike a deal with Atgeriev, who has twice walked free from federal custody over the past 18 months.


According to the Vremya Novostei newspaper, Atgeriev was seized by FSB officers at the end of October when he flew to Makhachkala for secret negotiations with the security services. The paper claims that he has been interrogated for the past two weeks without being given access to relatives or lawyers.


However, the pro-Russian civilian administration in Gudermes claims that Atgeriev was arrested in Chechnya in late November and taken to Lefortovo in secret.


Whatever the case, Atgeriev remains the most enigmatic of the Chechen leaders - a man who was released from prison in 1999 by the personal intervention of the Russian prime minister and who was allegedly embroiled in the Andrei Babitsky scandal earlier this year.


Atgeriev first rose to prominence in January 1996 when he joined Chechen warlord Salman Raduev (another resident of Lefortovo) for the ill-starred raid on Kizlyar, just across the Dagestani border.


The Russian prosecutor's office subsequently issued a warrant for his arrest - a move which did little to hamper Atgeriev's rapid ascent up the Chechen political ladder. A distant relative of President Aslan Maskhadov, he was soon appointed head of the president's administration, then security minister.


He resigned from this post in March 1999 when he was put in charge of a new commission aimed at combatting organised crime in Chechnya - particularly the burgeoning slave trade.


Three months later, Atgeriev was arrested at Vnukovo airport whilst on his way to hold talks with senior ministers in Moscow.


However, just days after the arrest, Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin personally intervened and secured Atgeriev's release from the Matrosskaya Tishina prison. Observers in the Russia media commented that the two men were old acquaintances and Atgeriev had once presented Stepashin with a ceremonial Chechen dagger.


On the Ingushetian border, the ex-security minister was met by a welcoming committee of 300 rebel fighters who fired volleys of machine-gun bullets to celebrate his release. Atgeriev claimed that his arrest had been deliberately timed to scupper a forthcoming meeting he had arranged between President Boris Yeltsin and Aslan Maskhadov.


Back in Grozny, Atgeriev conducted a series of telephone negotiations with the then head of the FSB, Vladimir Putin, who invited him to a face-to-face meeting in Moscow.


However, when the Chechen minister arrived in Moscow, Putin cancelled the appointment and invited Atgeriev to meet his deputy instead. Atgeriev refused, claiming the deputy was "not senior enough".


In July this year, the FSB again announced that Atgeriev had been arrested and charged not only with taking part in the Kizlyar debacle but also of planning terrorist attacks on the civilian administration in Gudermes.


By September, however, Atgeriev was again at liberty, this time allegedly offering to surrender to the Russian forces together with 200 of his fighters. On the following day, "a man who introduced himself as Turpal-Ali Atgeriev" rang the Ekho Moskvy radio station and refuted these claims.


He also denied that he had taken part in the exchange of Radio Liberty reporter Andrei Babitsky for two Russian POWs - as the federal special forces had previously claimed.


Dmitri Nepomnyaschy is a regular IWPR contributor


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