MOSCOW -- Russia's most wanted man, a leader of Chechen separatists and the purported architect of some of the boldest and deadliest attacks on Russian soil in recent years, was killed yesterday in southern Russia, federal security officials reported.
Authorities said the Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev was killed overnight during what they described as a special operation in Ingushetia, a republic near Chechnya in Russia's restive North Caucasus region, where government forces have been locked in intermittent, bitter fighting with rebels for more than a decade.
Security Service Director Nikolai Patrushev conveyed news of Basayev's death to Russian President Vladimir V. Putin during a meeting broadcast on state-run television and said special forces had thwarted plans for an attack that was to have been carried out in Ingushetia during the Group of Eight summit, which begins Saturday in St. Petersburg.
Putin called Basayev's death "deserved retribution" for the attacks he claimed, including the 2004 taking of hostages at a school in Beslan, leading to the deaths of 331 people, most of them children.
Basayev, for whom Russia had issued a $10 million bounty, also took responsibility for the deadly siege of a theater in Moscow in 2002, the taking of a hospital and more than 1,000 hostages in the southern Russian city of Budyonnovsk in 1995, and the near-simultaneous explosions of two Russian airliners in 2004.
Though the government can and did claim a victory in the fight against an insurgent movement whose violence has spilled well beyond the Chechen border, it is far from certain what impact Basayev's death will have on the insurgency.
"It's premature to say it's over because the most radical faction of the Chechen separatists was decapitated," Andrei Kortunov, president of the Moscow-based New Eurasia Foundation, said. "The information suggests that terrorism [in the region] is not really coordinated by a single person. There are various groups which report to no one."
"Symbolically and emotionally, this is a huge victory for the Kremlin," Masha Lipman, an analyst with the Moscow Carnegie Center, said of Basayev's death. "But just as the assassination of [al-Qaida leader Abu Masab] al-Zarqawi barely changed the situation in Iraq, I don't think it will signal a major change here in Russia."
The circumstances surrounding Basayev's death remained unclear.
Based on an account by the Federal Security Service, Russian television reported that Basayev died when a truck carrying explosives and weapons blew up early yesterday on the outskirts of the village of Ekazhevo, in Ingushetia. Several other militants were said to have died in the blast.
Patrushev, the FSB director, asserted that security forces were involved and that the demise of the militants was a product of intelligence operations, "especially in those countries where arms were collected."
Putin said, "This is deserved retribution for our children in Beslan, for Budyonnovsk, for all the terrorist attacks that they committed in Moscow and in other regions of the Russian Federation including Ingushetia and the Chechen Republic."
According to an online report by the newspaper Gazeta, the Ingush FSB announced earlier that the explosion took place because of "careless handling" of weapons on the part of the militants. It mentioned no role by security forces.
The separatist Web site kavkazcenter.com, which recently posted a message allegedly from Basayev expressing "huge gratitude" to those responsible for the recent killing of five Russian diplomats in Iraq, confirmed Basayev's death. In a posting yesterday, it too said the cause of the explosion was accidental and that no special operation had taken place.
Ingush officials said Basayev, who by some accounts was decapitated in the blast, had been identified by his head, his trademark beard and his artificial leg, the result of an injury he sustained when he stepped on a mine during a rebel retreat.
Interfax reported that 12 other militants were killed in the operation.
Chechen President Alu Alkhanov said yesterday that Basayev's death marked the "logical end" to the counter-terrorism operation there.
"We taught them a lesson that none of the terrorists will escape punishment," the Russian news agency Interfax quoted Alkhanov as saying. Basayev's killing, he said, will "further ameliorate the situation in Chechnya and the entire Northern Caucasus."
In 1991, the year Chechnya declared its independence from Russia, Basayev hijacked a Russian passenger plane and forced it to Turkey. During the first Chechen war, beginning in 1994, he served as a leader of the guerrilla fighters who eventually repelled Russian forces from Grozny, the Chechen capital - though not before 11 of his family members were killed.
Basayev ran unsuccessfully for Chechnya's president in 1999, then was appointed prime minister but served only a short time.