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Chechen rebel leader killed, Russian military says

MOSCOW—The Russian military said Tuesday night that Chechen guerrilla leader Aslan Maskhadov, the former Soviet colonel who became president of the breakaway republic, had been killed.

Maskhadov, 53, generally was seen as one of the more moderate Chechen commanders, although Russia has long branded him a terrorist and refused to negotiate with him or his allies. One of Russia's most wanted men, he had the equivalent of an $11 million bounty on his head.

He reportedly was shot to death in a bunker in Tolstoy-Yurt, a town outside the Chechen capital of Grozny. It was unclear Tuesday night whether he'd been killed by Russian troops, rival Chechen warlords or his own bodyguards.

Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered identification tests, according to the Interfax news agency. He promised state honors to any Russian troops involved in the killing.

Russian television showed the body of a bloody, lightly bearded man who resembled Maskhadov, and Chechen exiles said it was likely to be him. The footage also showed a narrow underground pit reached by a wooden ladder, evoking images of the hiding place of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

Chechen envoy Akhmed Zakayev said from London that resistance to Russian troops in Chechnya "will continue, no doubt about it." His comments came in a telephone interview with Ekho Moskvy radio.

Maskhadov, a Soviet artillery officer, left the military in 1992 as the Soviet Union fell apart. He played a key role in organizing Chechen military resistance in a war against Russia from 1994 to 1996.

His forces, along with other separatist groups, fought the Russian troops to a standoff, despite the Russians' formidable firepower. He eventually helped broker a peace accord with former Russian President Boris Yeltsin, although Moscow refused to recognize Chechnya's independence.

Running on a platform that Chechnya must be independent, Maskhadov was elected president of the restive republic in 1997. He lost his position two years later as the Chechen resistance splintered and more radical, Islamist warlords such as Shamil Basayev gained larger followings.

A 1999 Chechen incursion into the neighboring republic of Dagestan enraged Moscow, leading Putin to launch a second war in Chechnya. Putin promised that Russian forces would finally vanquish the rebels and "slaughter them in their outhouses."

That war continues, with assassinations, ambushes, kidnappings and torture commonplace. Grozny, the once-lovely capital, has been almost destroyed in 10 years of fighting.

Maskhadov, through his ally Zakayev, tried to press Moscow into peace talks earlier this year, but Russia refused all negotiations.

Kremlin officials blamed Maskhadov for the deadly takeover of a Moscow theater in October 2002. They also said he was involved in the school-hostage slaughter in Beslan six months ago, which left 336 dead.

Maskhadov condemned both incidents. Basayev claimed responsibility for the Beslan siege.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050308 CHECHNYA leader

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