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Chechen Rebel Chief Is Reported Dead

Russia: The notorious Khattab was slain in March, intelligence agency claims, but even Putin seems skeptical.

April 26, 2002|JOHN DANISZEWSKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — The Russian intelligence service says it's true--but no one else seems to be buying it just yet. Even President Vladimir V. Putin sounded dubious Thursday about claims that one of Moscow's most hated enemies had been killed in Chechnya.

Islamic guerrilla leader Khattab is to Russians roughly what Osama bin Laden and the Taliban's Mullah Mohammed Omar have become to Americans: a sworn, ruthless nemesis who always seems maddeningly just out of reach.

The Jordanian-born, Russian-educated radical with a reputation for savagery has been one of the top three commanders of the rebels fighting for independence in Chechnya, a predominantly Muslim Russian republic in the Caucasus region. Russians consider him the rebels' main connection to Bin Laden's terrorist network.

His demise, if true, would be a major victory for Russian forces, which have fought the rebels in Chechnya in two wars since 1994.

"I would like to think this is the case," Putin said in televised remarks about the report. "In any case, I am sure that such an end is in store for all these terrorists.

"But I think we should wait until we get confirmation of this information," he added, "[in order] to consider it absolutely objective."

The FSB, the main successor agency to the KGB, said Thursday that it would provide the Russian media with proof of Khattab's death soon. But its announcement lacked any details about how and when Khattab--who goes by one name--was killed or where his body was.

Earlier, the Interfax news agency quoted an anonymous FSB source, who indicated that Khattab was killed in an operation conducted by the intelligence service in March.

"We can declare this with a high degree of certitude because Khattab has not surfaced. . . . He has not had any radio contacts, and the activities of rebels in the area controlled by Khattab are uncoordinated," Interfax quoted the source as saying.

Ahmed Zakayev, who was appointed by ousted Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov to represent the rebel side in proposed peace talks with Russia, said the report of Khattab's death was groundless.

Reached by telephone, he told Associated Press that Khattab was in fine health and "at his post."

A similar claim was made in a report on the Web site of the Kavkaz Center, a pro-Chechen group.

But Echo of Moscow radio, quoting an unnamed military source, said a decapitated body that might be Khattab's was in a military morgue in the southern city of Rostov-on-Don.

That there is mystery surrounding his purported death is typical for Khattab, about whom little is known. He reportedly is a veteran of wars in Afghanistan and the Balkans and is thought to have joined the Chechen guerrillas in the late 1990s.

According to news reports, Khattab is believed to have come from a wealthy Jordanian family and once studied in Moscow. He led Islamic fighters who attempted to spread insurrection to Dagestan, a Russian republic bordering Chechnya--one of the factors cited by Russia in 1999 when it sent troops to put down the separatist-minded government of Maskhadov.

Since then, at least 3,000 Russian troops and uncounted Chechen rebels and civilians have died in a grinding war that shows little sign of abating.

"Until you see the dead body, you cannot say someone is dead," Akhmad Kadyrov, head of Chechnya's pro-Kremlin administration, told The Times in a telephone interview. "Neither I personally, nor any of my people, have seen Khattab's corpse with our own eyes."

Kadyrov noted that there have been other occasions when Russians have declared rebel commanders dead, "and then these field commanders would resurface in a totally different corner of Chechnya alive and kicking."

Because Khattab reportedly helped funnel funds from the Middle East and Afghanistan to support the Chechen rebels, his death could mean more than just the elimination of one more warlord, Kadyrov said.

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