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Russian troops kill Chechen leader

Suspected rebel rounded-up
A suspected Chechen fighter surrenders to Russian troops  

MOSCOW, Russia -- Chechen leader Arbi Barayev has been killed in a drive by Russian troops to flush out leading rebels.

The death of Barayev, for years described by Moscow as the ringleader of kidnapping gangs that terrorised southern Russia, was being claimed as a victory for Russian troops.

He was suspected of being involved in the kidnapping of Russian and overseas journalists and in the brutal murder of four engineers from Britain and New Zealand in 1998, allegations he denied.

A total of 17 Chechen rebels were killed in the eight-day operation in Barayev's home town of Alkhan-Kala, a spokesman for the Kremlin's agency on Chechnya told Associated Press.

One Russian serviceman was killed and four wounded in clashes with rebels.

Barayev had been blamed for a number of raids on Russian checkpoints and pro-Moscow Chechen police as well as numerous kidnappings, Vladimir Moltenskoi, an acting commander of the Russian force in Chechnya told NTV television.

Details of his killing were unclear. His body was identified by relatives and was being buried on Monday.

Russian troops had blocked anyone from entering or leaving Alkhan-Kala, 12 kilometres (seven miles) west of the capital Grozny, for a week as they searched for rebels. At least 80 people were detained, eyewitnesses said.

There was an international outcry after the severed heads of four Western hostages were discovered at the roadside near Grozny three years ago.

The hostages -- Britons Peter Kennedy, Darren Hickey, and Rudolf Petschi, and New Zealand's Stanley Shaw -- were engineers working for Granger Telecom, a British telephone company.

They were abducted by Chechen gunmen, held as hostages for two months, then killed.

Russian troops are trying to restore Moscow's control over the breakaway region, which declared itself independent during the 1994-96 war.

Federal forces went back into Chechnya in September 1999 after rebels based there attacked a neighbouring region, and after apartment bombings blamed on Chechen terrorists killed some 300 people.

Nevertheless, mass withdrawals of Russian forces from Chechnya have been put on hold as Russian forces come under daily attack from rebel fighters.

• The Russian government
• Chechen Republic Online

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