MOSCOW -- The separatist Chechen leader, who had attempted to inspire an Islamic rebellion against Russia across the northern Caucasus, was killed yesterday in a gunfight with police in his hometown.
The death of Abdul Khalim Sadulayev, a former Islamic court judge who took over the Chechen resistance after the death of former Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov, marks a serious blow to insurgents attempting to destabilize southern Russia and establish independence for Chechnya.
"The terrorists have been virtually decapitated. They have sustained a severe blow, and they are never going to recover from it," Ramzan Kadyrov, prime minister of the Russian-backed Chechen government, told the Interfax news agency.
An intelligence agent and police officer were also killed in the operation, the Federal Security Service said, and NTV television reported that a second militant died as well.
Sadulayev and military commander Shamil Basayev jointly had led what many believe to be a dwindling number of separatist forces in a republic that increasingly is coming under Moscow's control, even as violence has filtered out of Chechnya and into adjoining republics.
Basayev's popularity has dwindled as Chechens grow fatigued with the counterpoint of violence and reprisals. Sadulayev worked to eliminate terrorist violence outside Chechnya, his supporters said, and had a substantial following among young Muslims disenchanted with corruption and violence among Kadyrov and his entourage.
"This morning in an unequal battle, another president of the Chechen republic was killed, the legitimate president, the legitimate holder of power," Akhmed Zakayev, the Chechen separatists' foreign minister, said in a telephone interview. "And I think that the Russian authorities have an inadequate assessment of the situation in Chechnya and the North Caucasus. Otherwise, there is no way to explain their celebratory mood in connection with Sadulayev's murder."
Sadulayev had won pledges of loyalty not only from Chechen separatists, but from Islamic fundamentalist groups seeking the overthrow of the Kremlin's authority all across southern Russia.
In recent months, he had called for expanding the Chechen conflict into a "decolonization" of Muslim-dominated adjoining regions and adoption of a constitution in conformance with Islamic law, or sharia.
Maskhadov also had been an advocate of a negotiated end to the long-running conflict. Authorities killed him in March 2005 in his hideout in the basement of a house in a Chechen village.
Kadyrov said police located Sadulayev in his hometown of Argun based on a tip that he was planning an attack timed to next month's G8 summit in St. Petersburg.
"Sadulayev had recently been outside the Chechen republic, but a week ago he arrived in Chechnya to organize a large-scale terrorist attack in Argun. We received information on this for 15 rubles [about $55], conducted an operation, and now Sadulayev is dead," Kadyrov said.
Kim Murphy writes for the Los Angeles Times.