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Top Chechen Leader Killed in Russian Airstrike and Buried, Aides Say

April 24, 1996 GMT

MOSCOW (AP) _ Chechen rebel leader Dzhokhar Dudayev reportedly was buried in the breakaway region today, eliminating the top player in the bitter 16-month war against Russia that has tainted Boris Yeltsin’s presidency.

The ITAR-Tass news agency quoted Dudayev’s vice president and reported successor as saying Dudayev was killed in a Russian airstrike Sunday.

Officials in Moscow said they were still trying to confirm Dudayev’s death, and the Russian military denied any involvement in it.

Dudayev ``was buried this morning in the presence of close relatives at one of the rural cemeteries in southern Chechnya,″ said Chechen vice president Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev. Top Chechen officials said Yandarbiyev has succeeded Dudayev as head of the separatist movement.

Yandarbiyev would not say where Dudayev was buried, but earlier reports said it would be in Shalazhi, site of his mother’s grave. Dudayev’s burial followed two days of conflicting reports about his fate.

Dudayev’s death would have major _ though as yet unpredictable _ consequences on the war in Chechnya.

His fighters could splinter, making negotiations with Moscow even more difficult. As a martyr, Dudayev could become a powerful rallying symbol for his followers, who have already said they will avenge his death.

However, peace talks had gone nowhere under Dudayev, and it was possible that a successor could emerge with new ideas.

The most wanted man in Russia, Dudayev had eluded the Russians since his capital, Grozny, fell early last year. His death comes at a time of intensified Russian airstrikes against suspected rebel strongholds.

Russia’s military brass, who suffered a humiliating loss of more than 90 men in a rebel ambush last week, are largely ignoring an order by Yeltsin that combat operations cease except in cases of self-defense.

ITAR-Tass quoted one unidentified Russian Interior Ministry official as saying Dudayev was killed in retaliation for the ambush.

The first report of Dudayev’s death came Tuesday from Khozh-Akhmed Yarikhanov, a former Dudayev peace negotiator who released a statement in Grozny saying he had seen the body.

The statement, carried by ITAR-Tass, said Dudayev was wounded Sunday in a Russian airstrike when he walked into a field to hold talks with a mediator by satellite phone. He died that night, it said.

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The report also said a top aide to Dudayev and an unidentified ``high-level guest″ from Moscow also were killed in the attack near the village of Gekhi-Chu, 18 miles southwest of Grozny.

But many Russian officials and politicians insisted the reports were just a rebel trick. Some Russian officials said today they were waiting to see a body before accepting Dudayev’s death.

Chechen field commander Shamil Basayev said on rebel television late Tuesday that the breakaway republic was observing three days of mourning for Dudayev, the Interfax news agency reported.

The military would not confirm airstrikes in the area on Sunday, but said planes were flying nearby. Villagers in Gekhi-Chu said today that they had not heard shelling for several days and knew nothing of Dudayev’s fate.

``Federal troops have nothing to do with the death of Dzhokhar Dudayev,″ Vyacheslav Tikhomirov, head of Russia’s troops in Chechnya, told ITAR-Tass today.

``Neither the aviation nor the artillery had carried out any combat operations near the settlement of Gekhi-Chu on the night of April 21-22.″

Yeltsin, en route to a state visit to China, played down the impact of Dudayev’s death.

``With or without Dudayev, we will wind up everything in Chechnya with peace,″ he told Russian news agencies.

But he added: ``We must be on the alert, as the rebels may intensify their activity.″

Dudayev’s representative in Moscow, Vagap Tutakov, vowed today ``the struggle will be continued with tripled energy.″

``Supporters of the president of (Chechnya) have vowed to avenge his death,″ he told Interfax.

Dudayev, a former Soviet air force general who once flew strategic nuclear bombers, was elected president of the small Caucasus republic in late 1991 as the Soviet Union was falling apart.

He declared independence, beginning a standoff with the Kremlin that erupted into war when Yeltsin sent in troops in December 1994.

What Yeltsin expected would be a quick military campaign turned into a quagmire in the face of fierce Chechen resistance. The war has sapped Yeltsin’s popularity, killed an estimated 30,000 people and devastated much of Chechnya.

Dudayev appeared periodically on local television in Chechnya and granted interviews to foreign reporters.

In a March interview with The Associated Press, Dudayev claimed the Russian president had recently ordered his assassination.

Dudayev turned 52 last week. He was born in 1944 and was one of hundreds of thousands of Chechens deported to Central Asia en masse by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin for allegedly collaborating with the Nazis.

The deportation fueled great hatred of Soviet authority among the already independence-minded Chechens, who had surrendered to Moscow only in the 19th century after decades of bloody warfare.