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Pro-Moscow troops said to kill Chechen rebel chief

Written by: Staff

ARGUN, Russia, June 17 (Reuters) Pro-Moscow officials in Russia's restive Chechnya region today said their forces had killed a separatist cleric who had held the title of rebel leader for more than a year.

''The so-called president of the Chechen republic of Ichkeria, Abdul-Khalim Saidulayev, was killed today in the course of a special operation,'' Muslim Khuchiyev, a senior minister in Chechnya's pro-Moscow government, told reporters.

He said the operation took place in Argun, 30 km east of the regional capital Grozny, but gave no further details. There has been no independent confirmation of Saidulayev's death.

A previously unknown Argun mullah, Saidulayev was named rebel leader in March 2005, replacing the charismatic Aslan Maskhadov when he was killed by Russian troops.

Most analysts believe Saidulayev was a figurehead, installed as a compromise between two leading separatist warlords -- Shamil Basayev and Doku Umarov.

''Saidulayev has never had any real influence on the situation in Chechnya,'' Interfax news agency quoted pro-Moscow regional President Alu Alkhanov as saying. ''People knew almost nothing about him.'' Itar-Tass news agency quoted police sources as saying that in his latest statements Saidulayev made clear that Umarov would succeed him. The Russians accuse both Umarov and Basayev of banditry and attacks on civilians.

Russia has fought two wars, in 1994-96 and in 1999, to subdue Chechnya's drive for independence and take the restive southern province under its full control.

Russian troops have crushed large-scale resistance by separatists, but rebel hit-and-run attacks and special operations by security forces claim dozens of lives every month.

Pro-Moscow Chechen leaders say the separatist resistance has died out and they face mainly criminal gangs, which mushroomed during the conflict.

''Saidulayev's death will have no real impact on the situation in the Chechen republic,'' Alkhanov said. ''The situation is stable and neither Saidulayev nor his successors will be able to stop positive changes in the region.'' REUTERS SHB HT1522

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