Rebels in the breakaway southern Russian republic of Chechnya confirmed on Sunday that Russian troops had killed their leader, and said a hardline guerrilla commander would succeed him.
Abdul-Khalim Sadulayev, a Muslim cleric who had led Chechen separatist rebels since last year, was killed in a shoot-out with Russian special forces on Saturday in Argun, his home village, not far from the regional capital, Grozny.
A rebel website declared Mr Sadulayev a martyr and vowed to continue the fight for Chechen independence. It said the new rebel leader or “president” would be Doku Umarov, a field commander.
The loss of another leader little over 15 months after Russian troops killed the more moderate Aslan Maskhadov would be a blow to the rebel movement, but could also further radicalise it, analysts said.
Chechnya’s pro-Moscow government, installed after presidential elections in 2004 and parliamentary elections last year, hailed the news as a further sign that stability was being restored.
“The terrorists have been virtually decapitated,” said Ramzan Kadyrov, the prime minister who commands his own paramilitary group. “They have sustained a severe blow and they are never going to recover from it.”
Mr Kadyrov claimed to have information that Mr Sadulayev and the rebels had been planning a terror attack in Argun to coincide with next month’s summit of the Group of Eight industrialised nations in St Petersburg. He said Mr Sadulayev’s location had been betrayed by one of his followers for the price of a dose of heroin.
Mr Sadulayev was little known until he succeeded Mr Maskhadov, who was elected president during Chechnya’s brief independence from Russia in the late 1990s, before becoming a rebel commander when the second Chechen war began in 1999.
The appointment of a Muslim cleric as leader gave a more overtly Islamist slant to what had originated as an independence movement.
Mr Sadulayev had tried to broaden the Chechen uprising to the rest of the north Caucasus region, as Moscow sought to contain it within Chechnya and restore order to the war-ravaged republic.
He also brought back into the rebel leadership Shamil Basayev, the self-professed terrorist who organised the Beslan school siege in which 331 people died in 2004. Mr Maskhadov had previously distanced Mr Basayev from the leadership.
Mr Umarov, the new leader, is seen as an ally of Mr Basayev, and thought to have taken part in a raid into neighbouring Ingushetia in summer 2004 shortly before the Beslan attack.