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Poison Hidden in a Letter May Have Killed Rebel in Chechnya

Russia: Reports suggest that the Arab guerrilla, one of Moscow's chief enemies in the separatist republic, succumbed to a toxin hidden in a letter.

May 01, 2002|JOHN DANISZEWSKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — It is a time-tested way to dispose of enemies. Now a prominent Chechen Web site and some newspapers here are suggesting that a fast-acting poison hidden in a letter was the instrument used in March to kill one of Russia's chief enemies: an Arab guerrilla named Khattab.

If so, it would resurrect a method of assassination often used in czarist times and by the former Soviet Union.

The Russian Federal Security Service, or FSB, announced Thursday that Khattab--one of the country's most wanted foes and a prominent rebel in the separatist republic of Chechnya--had been killed in late March in the Chechen mountains through an unspecified "special operation."

The next night, FSB officials released a videotape of what appeared to be the corpse of Khattab, a bushy-bearded warrior accused by the Russians of being the Chechens' conduit to the terror organization of Osama bin Laden. He was shown laid out on the ground, surrounded by comrades, dressed in T-shirt and camouflage pants, with no evident wounds on his body.

A Web site used to distribute news from Chechen guerrillas, who are seeking independence from Russia, acknowledged Monday that Khattab--generally known by that one name--had indeed been assassinated.

"According to information from the headquarters of the Chechen moujahedeen, Amir Khattab was poisoned on March 19 by a letter that was brought to him by a messenger," said the Kavkaz Center site, www.kavkaz.org.

"It has been established precisely that Khattab was poisoned by that letter," the statement continued. "Khattab knew the messenger who brought the letter," and the assailant is now believed to be with the Russians, it added.

Russian newspapers were quick to take up the theme Tuesday that Khattab had been poisoned, suggesting that the FSB had played a role in stoking rivalries within the rebel camp until Khattab was betrayed by one of his own comrades.

Another report said that Khattab, who was believed to have been born in Jordan or Saudi Arabia, was done in by Jordanian intelligence agents and Chechens, with hardly any connivance on the Russian side.

"In the opinion of extremists, Khattab died having opened a poisoned letter delivered to him by someone from his closest entourage," the newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta reported Tuesday. "Khattab was betrayed by his own people, which ... does not rule out a secret operation carefully planned by the FSB, cleverly making use of the incredible discord among bandit formations."

Russian officials were noncommittal when asked about the possible poisoning. "To what extent is the poisoning version credible? I personally am accustomed to disbelieving everything I hear on Chechnya and about Chechnya until I hold fully reliable proof of something right in my hands," said Alexander V. Machevsky, a spokesman for President Vladimir V. Putin's administration.

"As for the killing of Khattab, it was such a complex operation that it is impossible to find out exactly," he said, adding that the FSB is giving no details.

But the reports of poisoning are certainly believable, said Igor N. Prelin, a retired KGB colonel who worked for nearly 40 years in Soviet foreign intelligence.

"A poison is a rather convenient means of destroying someone--it allows the executor to remain at a distance from the target and not risk his own safety," he observed. "With this in mind, [poisoning] appears to be a quite acceptable way of liquidating him."

Russian history is rife with episodes of poisoning. Ivan the Terrible is thought to have poisoned two of his wives. Czar Boris Godunov is believed to have poisoned Ivan's son. Rasputin was poisoned, but the mad monk who advised the imperial family of Nicholas II finally had to be shot and drowned too before he died.

In the Stalin era, the KGB had a special laboratory to produce poisons for the purpose of assassination, tested on unwitting convicts to determine which were the most effective.

There have been claims that the writer Maxim Gorky, later lionized in Soviet propaganda, was in fact poisoned on Stalin's orders.

Perhaps the most famous case in recent times was the 1978 assassination of Georgy I. Markov, Bulgaria's best-known dissident, who was pricked with a poison-tipped umbrella.

Alexei V. Kuznetsov of The Times' Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.

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