By STEVEN LEE MYERS
Published: March 8, 2005
OSCOW, March 8 - Russian special forces killed the leader of Chechnya's separatists in a raid today that gave the Kremlin a rare victory in a bloody war that has killed tens of thousands and spawned a wave of terrorist attacks across Russia in recent years.
The slain separatist, Aslan Maskhadov, who from hiding led thousands of fighters following Russia's second invasion of the republic in 1999, died in a bunker beneath a house in an outwardly peaceful village, Tolstoy Yurt, only 12 miles from the region's capital, Grozny, according to Russian officials and news accounts.
His death is akin to the capture of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, depriving insurgents of their political and symbolic leader, although it remains uncertain what effect the slaying will have on those still determined to resist Russian forces in Chechnya.
While Mr. Maskhadov, who was 53, nominally commanded Chechnya's fighters, he appeared to have lost influence over Russia's most-wanted man, Shamil Basayev, the rebel commander who has claimed responsibility for the worst terrorist attacks, including the siege of a theater in Moscow in 2002 that killed 129 and a school in Beslan last September that killed at least 339, half of them school children.
President Vladimir V. Putin appeared on television with the director of the Federal Security Service, Nikolai P. Patrushev, who told him that his forces had killed Mr. Maskhadov and arrested four associates. In brief, unemotional remarks, Mr. Putin simply asked Mr. Patrushev to confirm the identification of Mr. Maskhadov's body and to submit of list of those involved in the raid for medals.
"There is still a lot of work to do there," he said, referring to Chechnya. "We have to build up our forces to protect the people of the republic and citizens of all Russia from the bandits."
Mr. Maskhadov's imminent capture or death has been reported before, but officials showed little doubt that it was Mr. Maskhadov who died in the raid. NTV showed graphic images of a corpse that resembled him. The body lay in a pool of blood, bare-chested, his arms outstretched and entangled in his shirt sleeves. There was what appeared a bullet hole beneath his left eye.
One of his most prominent aides, Akhmed Zakayev, said he had also received confirmation of Mr. Maskhadov's death from people inside Chechnya. "It is just one more political assassination," he said in a telephone interview from London, where he has received political asylum.
He cited the deaths of Chechnya's first post-Soviet president, Dzhokhar Dudayev, who was killed by Russian forces during the first war in 1996, and his predecessor, Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, who died in a car bombing in February 2004 while in exile in the Persian Gulf emirate of Qatar. A court there convicted two Russian secret agents and sentenced them to life in prison, though they later released them to the Russian authorities.
"The ordinary people of Chechnya are being killed every day because they disagree with the federal authorities," he said, "as are the people they have elected."
Mr. Zakayev said the separatist movement's leaders - now in exile or in hiding - would under the republic's former constitution elected an interim leader, as they did following Mr. Dudayev's death.
Dmitri V. Trenin, deputy director of the Carnegie Moscow Center who was one of the authors of "Russia's Restless Frontier," a book published last year that examined the conflict's ramifications, said Mr. Maskhadov's death might not change events on the ground significantly, given that his leadership had become increasingly symbolic and that the rebel commander Mr. Basayev remained at large.
Still he called it a "political victory and a moral victory" for the Kremlin. "I think it's significant for Mr. Putin, first of all," Mr. Trenin said. "He can produce evidence that the antiterrorist operation in Chechnya is yielding results. He needed that, especially after Beslan."
The slain separatist, Aslan Maskhadov, led thousands of fighters following Russia's second invasion of the republic in 1999.