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Feared Chechan Fighter Likely Dead - 2002-04-26

Russian national television showed footage Friday evening that it said confirmed that one of the most notorious guerrilla commanders in the breakaway republic of Chechnya has been killed by Russian security forces.

RTR television showed footage of a corpse with a bushy black beard and dressed in camouflage trousers, a black T-shirt and a black bandana covering the head. The TV report said it was the body of the infamous Arab-born Chechen guerrilla fighter known as Khattab. It said the commander was killed in an operation by Russian Special Forces March 19-20. The television report said the footage had been shot by Chechen militants and was intercepted by Russian forces. It did not disclose details.

On Thursday Russian intelligence officials first announced that Khattab had been killed. Senior Russian officials later made similar statements, though none provided any proof. Russian forces have in the past claimed to have killed leading Chechen rebel figures, but those claims then turned out to be false.

Chechen rebel sources Thursday dismissed Russian claims that Khattab had been killed. On Friday, the rebel's website seemed less sure. It said that if Khattab has been killed there are other commanders to fill the gap.

If the body shown on Russian TV is indeed that of Khattab it will be a serious blow to the Chechen rebels. Khattab was a senior lieutenant to Chechen rebel commander Shamil Basayev. He was also a man widely feared and shrouded in mystery. Khattab first appeared on the scene during the first Chechen war between 1994 to 1996. He is believed to have spearheaded attacks from Chechnya into the neighboring Russian republic of Dagestan in 1999, which led to the second incursion into Chechnya by Russian troops. He has been widely portrayed as a brutal fighter who tortures and mutilates his victims.

Rebels like Khattab and Basayev want to establish a strict Islamic state in Chechnya. Russian officials accuse them of having links with Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist network. Russian president Vladimir Putin said Thursday, if Khattab has been killed it will be a major strike in the battle against international terrorism.