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Chechen rebel leader killed

Maskhadov was Chechnya's president after the Russian military withdrew from the republic.
Vladimir V. Putin
Aslan Maskhadov

MOSCOW, Russia -- Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov -- who had a $10 million bounty on his head -- has been killed by Russian troops, according to Russian news agencies.

Russian NTV television showed Federal Security Service head Nikolai Patrushev telling President Vladimir Putin that Maskhadov had been killed in a "special operation" in the village of Tolstoy-Yurt.

CNN's Jill Dougherty said that Russian NTV television had shown pictures of a shirtless bearded corpse that resembled Maskhadov.

She said he had been hiding in a bunker when he died, according to Russian news agency reports.

Russian troops had wanted to take him alive, she said, but according to reports in Moscow the weapons of his bodyguards "were either misused or something went awry."

Earlier Tuesday, Russian officials reported that three rebels who were planning a large terrorist attack on the administration building in Tolstoy-Yurt had been detained.

Maskhadov, 53, led the Chechen separatists who fought Russian forces to a standstill in a 1994-96 war and he became the republic's president after the Russian military withdrew.

Under Maskhadov's leadership, Chechen rebel forces won many battles against Russian forces sent to crush them in December 1994, but did not win independence from Russia.

In 1997, Maskhadov and Russian President Boris Yeltsin signed an agreement promising an end to 400 years of conflict between Moscow and the region. Moscow, however, still insisted the region was a part of the Russian Federation.

Maskhadov became a candidate for president, running against the more radical Shamil Basayev, a field commander with a popular following.

Maskhadov won a landslide victory in January 1997, swearing "to reinforce the independence of the Chechen state."

The election was declared fair by international monitors. Russian President Boris Yeltsin sent his congratulations, and Russia said it wanted to rebuild relations with Chechnya. But Russia still refused to recognize Chechnya's claim of independence.

Maskhadov worked with Basayev until 1998, when Basayev established a network of military officers that soon devolved into rival warlords.

Chechen rebel forces crossed into Dagestan in 1999 and Moscow held Chechens responsible for a wave of bomb attacks across Russia. Russia sent troops back into the republic, described Maskhadov's government as unlawful, and tried to build support for a parliament made up of Chechens in exile.

During fierce fighting, Maskhadov's government was removed from power and a pro-Moscow administration was set up.

After a deadly siege at a theater in Moscow in October 2002, Russian President Vladimir Putin ruled out talks with what he called "terrorists," including Maskhadov.

He said the separatist leader had "led Chechnya to economic collapse, hunger, and the total destruction of the spiritual and social sphere in Chechnya.

After Moscow-backed Chechen President Akhmad Kadyrov was assassinated in May 2004, Maskhadov vowed to kill whoever replaced him.

Last autumn, after the horrific Beslan school siege in North Ossetia, Russia's Federal Security Service offered a reward of 300 million rubles ($10.3 million) for information that could help them hunt down Maskhadov and Basayev.

Maskhadov at the time said there was "no justification" for the seizure of the school, but also said recent terrorist attacks perpetrated by Chechens were "unavoidable" because of Russia's policies.

The siege led to the deaths of more than 300 people, including many students. Maskhadov vowed to bring to Basayev to justice over the Beslan incident, according to a posting on a Chechen rebel Web site.

"I responsibly announce that after the end of the war, individuals guilty of conducting illegal acts, including Samil Basayev, will be passed to a court of law," Maskhadov, who frequently uses that Web site to post remarks, had said.

"I announce that the leadership of the Chechen Republic and the armed forces under my control ... had nothing to do with this terrorist act." Maskhadov was born to Chechens in exile in Kazakhstan.

His family returned to Chechnya in 1957. He joined the Soviet army, serving in both Hungary and Lithuania, before becoming chief of staff of the Chechen army in 1992 after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Last year, Maskhadov vowed to bring to justice warlord Shamil Basayev over the Beslan school hostage-taking that ended with the deaths of more than 300 people. (Full story)

He denied any link with the Beslan attack but Russian officials continued to assert he and Basayev cooperated in the bloody operation and put a $10 million bounty on each man. (Full story)

A temporary cease-fire called by Maskhadov expired late last month on the 61st anniversary of the Stalin-era deportation of Chechens to the barren steppes of then-Soviet Central Asia.

Maskhadov had ordered his fighters, including Basayev, to observe a weeks long cease-fire through February 22, the eve of the anniversary. He also renewed a call for talks with the Russian leadership, which has consistently turned them down.

Russian officials had dismissed the cease-fire call as a publicity stunt and maintained that rebels kept up their attacks.

Moscow Bureau Chief Jill Dougherty contributed to this report

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