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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

New Rebel Chief Said Dead and Alive

SOUTHERN CHECHNYA -- Russian agencies reported Monday that Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, the successor to the late Chechen rebel leader Dzhokhar Dudayev, had been killed in the breakaway republic, but rebel commanders calmly dismissed the reports as disinformation.

"He is in a perfect state. It is another lie from the Russian side," said Lieutenant Colonel Doku Makhayev, deputy commander of the southwestern front and a member of the Chechen rebels' defense committee.

Earlier, Interfax and Itar-Tass had reported that Yandarbiyev was killed in the village of Urus Martan during a fire fight among Chechen rebel factions, quoting sources in the Russian-backed government in Grozny.

"I know he was not in Urus Martan last night and that he was not killed," Makhayev said Monday, sitting in his headquarters in a secret location in southern Chechnya.

"At 1600 I talked to my chief of staff who said he had contact with him just an hour before. There had been no shootout or attack at all."

If Makhayev and other rebel commanders were lying they were acting well. Their dismissals were offhand and they said journalists could meet with Yandarbiyev Tuesday.

Interfax also later retracted its report, citing a high-ranking official in the Federal Security Service as saying it was Yandarbiyev's nephew who had been killed.

The commander of Russian troops in Chechnya, General Vyacheslav Tikhomirov, had also cautioned that the report was unconfirmed. But he also joined Russian officials in using the reports as an opportunity to portray the Chechen rebels as divided and fighting over the leadership.

Field commanders were "fighting for spheres of influence and the money bag," Interfax quoted Tikhomirov as saying. "After Dudayev's death, there was no politician among his supporters who could take his place."

"After the death of Dudayev, or his departure from the political scene, a struggle for his position was inevitable," General Lev Rokhlin, a deputy whose forces captured the Chechen regional capital Grozny last year, told Reuters. "This position was not going to be given up just like that."

Although Makhayev said this was all disinformation, he also said the rebels were taking precautions. He said previous false statements of attacks on rebels leaders had been followed two or three days later by a real attack.

It was not possible Monday to confirm that Yandarbiyev was alive, or dead.

Several times in recent months rebel commanders have been inaccurately reported killed or injured, including Chechen chief of staff Aslan Maskhadov, the sources usually being from inside the Moscow-installed government in Grozny.

While Makhayev said it would be possible for journalists to meet Yandarbiyev on Tuesday, he said fighting and aerial bombardments would make it difficult.

Not long before he spoke, Russian military jets flew over and could be heard bombing the area around Goiskoye and Komsomolskoye, in central Chechnya, barely 20 kilometers from Grozny.

Makhayev joined other rebel commanders in confirming his support for Yandarbiyev, who took over from Dzhokhar Dudayev, killed in a targeted rocket attack April 21.

Another report from the RIA agency stating that hardline rebel commander Shamil Basayev had been appointed commander in chief of the Chechen forces also could not be confirmed. Basayev gained notoriety by leading a raid on the southern Russian town of Budyonnovsk last June.

Such an appointment would have dangerous implications for Maskhadov, the current chief of staff. But rebel commanders said Monday that no significant changes in personnel had been made following Dudayev's death, with the exception of Yandarbiyev's appointment to replace him.