Chechen Leader Killed

In the end, a dangerous and irresistible vanity - talking on the phone - proved fatal for Dzhokar Dudayev.

Chechen Leader Killed

In the end, a dangerous and irresistible vanity - talking on the phone - proved fatal for Dzhokar Dudayev. Late on the evening of April 21, the 52-year-old Chechen rebel leader pulled his Russian-built off-road vehicle into a field near the village of Gekhi-Chu, 30 km southwest of Grozny, the Chechen capital. There, with his Russian-born wife Alevtina nearby, Dudayev prepared once again to offer a gesture of electronic defiance to the Russian forces that had sought his death or capture for 16 months: using a satellite phone to communicate with the outside world from his war-ravaged homeland in the Caucasus.

But this time, the Russians were waiting for him. Primed for revenge after a rebel ambush a week earlier had left nearly 100 of Moscow's soldiers dead, Russian intelligence operatives had been using electronic equipment to search for the signal from Dudayev's phone. Before he could finish his conversation - with an intermediary who was trying to arrange peace talks with the Kremlin - a Russian helicopter homed in on the signal and fired an air-to-surface missile towards the parked Neva. Dudayev's wife survived, but two of the fugitive leader's aides died - and a jagged piece of shrapnel penetrated deep into the back of Dudayev's head. According to his successor, Chechen rebel vice-president Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, Dudayev died soon afterwards in the arms of his bodyguard - but not before urging his followers to keep fighting for Chechnya's independence from Russia.

The news surprised Chechens and Russians alike. In Moscow, government officials insisted for days that they had no definitive proof of the rebel leader's death - even as they debated its effect on a savage conflict that has claimed 30,000 lives. Shortly before, the UN Human Rights Commission had condemned Moscow's military action in Chechnya as "a disproportionate use of force that violates international law." Russian President Boris Yeltsin said Dudayev's violent end removed an obstacle to peace. Even so, he soberly warned Russians that in the short term the slaying could spark fresh terrorist attacks against Russian cities. Yeltsin has admitted that his hopes of re-election in June may hang on resolution of the Chechen conflict.

Russian troops in battered Grozny did nothing to hide their feelings about Dudayev's death: when they heard, soldiers across the city fired their rifles into the air in a spontaneous victory celebration. But in Moscow, many politicians, officials and analysts were unsure if Dudayev's removal would push the rebels towards peace - or heavier fighting. New leader Yandarbiyev vowed to carry out a "just revenge" against the organizers of the assassination. But despite his swift promotion, it was far from clear that the 44-year-old former magazine editor would be able to maintain the same unifying hold on the scattered rebel forces as had the charismatic Dudayev. Arkady Volsky, a key Russian peace negotiator, dismissed Yandarbiyev as "a nominal figure who is unlikely to hold power for long."

Instead, Volsky and others foresee a jockeying for position among Yandarbiyev and two experienced rebel field commanders who are widely popular in Chechnya: Shamil Basayev and Aslan Maskhadov. Basayev became the focus of international attention last June when he led a hostage-taking raid on the southern Russian town of Budennovsk - and then negotiated safe passage home to Chechnya for his band of rebel fighters. Maskhadov is another skilled military commander who may be handicapped by having at times signalled a willingness to talk peace. Said Alexander Iskran, director of the Moscow-based Centre for Caucasian Studies: "Russian officials are describing him as a softer guy, one who is prepared to negotiate. That could get him accused of treason in Chechnya."

Dudayev, a late convert to Chechen nationalism, was always more complex than the bandit-king caricature peddled by Yeltsin. Almost from his birth in 1944, he had good reason to hate the Russians: that year, his family was moved to Kazakhstan for 13 years as part of a mass deportation of Chechens by dictator Josef Stalin on suspicion that they collaborated with invading Nazi forces. But Dudayev accepted the Soviet system, embarking on a military career in which he rose to become an air force major-general and commander of a nuclear-bomber base in Tartu, Estonia. There, he is still remembered as the mutinous general who in 1990 balked at carrying out Kremlin orders intended to suppress the flourishing Baltic independence movements. Soon afterwards, he returned to Chechnya, threw in his lot with the nationalists and seized control of the oil-rich republic. After winning its presidency in a 1991 election that Moscow refused to recognize, he embarked on a quest for independence for the 1.3 million Chechens.

Tensions mounted with the central government, and a full eight months before three Russian armored columns rumbled into Chechnya in December, 1994, Dudayev predicted the tragedy that would unfold. "They will invade," he told Maclean's in an interview held in the now-demolished "presidential palace" in Grozny. "And if they want to kill me, it is only a matter of time." He was right.

Maclean's May 6, 1996