Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov was killed by his own guards

Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov ordered his bodyguards to kill him to avoid being captured by federal forces, two Russian newspapers reported Monday.

Nikolai Shepel, deputy prosecutor general for southern Russia, said Maskhadov told his guards to shoot him dead when federal law enforcement troops began storming the basement bunker he was hiding in on March 8.

Russian officials had said previously that Maskhadov was killed when Russian forces cornered him in the bunker in the northern Chechen village of Tolstoy-Yurt, but gave few other details of the operation.

According to the bodyguards who were captured, Maskhadov said he did not want to fall into the Russians' hands, Shepel was quoted as saying by the Izvestia and Gazeta newspapers.

"'I can blow myself up, meaning that you also will die, and you don't need it,"' Shepel quoted Maskhadov as telling his companions. "'You can surrender, but I can't do that."'

Shepel could not be reached for comment late Monday.

Maskhadov, a former Soviet artillery officer, took control of the rebel forces after Chechnya's first separatist president, Dzhokhar Dudayev, was killed in an airstrike in 1996 during the first war in the southern Russian region. Russian troops withdrew later that year, and Maskhadov was elected Chechen president in 1997.

Crime soared and kidnappings were rampant as Chechnya became one of the world's most dangerous places. The soft-spoken Maskhadov, a moderate Muslim, faced increasing opposition from radical Muslims who espoused turning Chechnya into a fundamentalist Islamic state.

After Russia launched the second war in 1999, Maskhadov directed rebel operations from hideouts in southern mountains. He and his spokesmen regularly issued statements calling for peace talks and denied Russian claims that he was involved in terrorist attacks, including hostage seizures at a Moscow theater in 2002 and at a school in Beslan last September.

The Kremlin repeatedly refused to hold talks with Maskhadov.

Despite Moscow's claims that the conflict was subsiding, rebels have continued to mount regular raids against the Russian troops and regional forces.

Aslanbek Aslakhanov, President Vladimir Putin's aide for the Caucasus region, warned Monday that other provinces in the region have grown increasingly volatile.

"Regions in the North Caucasus suffer from corruption of the authorities," he was quoted as saying by the ITAR-Tass news agency. "There is a high unemployment rate and low earnings in virtually all republics in the region."

Associated Press

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