. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Report Dudayev Is Dead Disputed

There was confusion over the fate of Chechen rebel leader Dzhokhar Dudayev on Tuesday after Itar-Tass reported he had been killed, but his supporters stated he was "alive and working as usual."

Itar-Tass reported that Dudayev had been killed Sunday evening by a Russian rocket attack on the outskirts of the village of Gekhi-Chu, 35 kilometers southeast of Grozny. Russian soldiers based in Grozny fired their weapons into the air upon hearing the report, Itar-Tass reported.

The report cited a statement from "the government of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeriya" it said was delivered to Itar-Tass's Grozny offices by Khozh-Akhmed Yarikhanov, the man who headed Dudayev's negotiating team at peace talks in 1995. "Dudayev has been killed," Yarikhanov told Itar-Tass. "I have personally seen Dudayev's corpse."

Yarikhanov added that Dudayev's vice president, Zelimkhan Yanderbiyev, was now president of the country.

It was not clear what impact the report, if true, would have on the outcome of the war. President Boris Yeltsin, who has frequently branded Dudayev a bandit and called for him to be shot, might be expected to take personal satisfaction in the news, but there was no guarantee that any successor would take a more conciliatory tone toward Moscow.

Yanderbiyev called on Chechen rebels to fight on.

Dudayev's supporters around the world challenged the report of his death. The vice premier of Dudayev's government, Khasan Kazuyev, who is based in Istanbul, told Interfax that he had spoken by satellite telephone with Dudayev Tuesday afternoon.

Itar-Tass, Russia's official news agency, has often issued unreliable reports from Chechnya. But they have usually been attributed to Russian military sources, and not officials in Dudayev's own government.

The reports may prove difficult to verify quickly, for while Dudayev is no stranger to making public appearances and statements, he does so erratically. He and his guerrillas have been hiding in Chechnya's mountains for more than a year, and he sometimes drops from sight for weeks on end.

In Boston, Diane Roazan, a professor of diplomatic history at the University of Massachusetts who usually speaks once a day on the phone with Dudayev, was also skeptical. "I have not heard from him [since Sunday], but this past month the Russians have been blocking our lines, and so there can sometimes be two or three days when we don't hear from each other," she said in a telephone interview. "But if he was dead I would have heard this from his relatives. I was on the phone all last night with people close to Dudayev, and I never heard anything about this."

Roazan added that she had been out all day and might have already missed a call from Dudayev. "He does not leave messages on my machine," she said.

Saipudy Khasanov, identified as Dudayev's personal secretary, also challenged the report Monday, telling Interfax that Dudayev was "alive and working as usual."

Yet Interfax, in that same report, said Russian warplanes had indeed bombed a meeting of top rebel commanders in the woods near Gekhi-Chu, killing Magomed Zhaniyev, Dudayev's military prosecutor, and Khamad Kurbanov, a spokesman for Dudayev usually based in Moscow.

The report of his death was apparently a surprise for everyone from Yeltsin, who was campaigning in Khabarovsk Tuesday, to Dudayev's Hague-based representative to the United Nations, Aslambek Khadiyev. Itar-Tass, citing sources close to the president, said Yeltsin was following news reports on the matter and wanted them checked out.

Khadiyev could not be reached at The Hague, but an associate who works closely with him said he was also trying to check the reports.

Dudayev, 51, a retired Soviet air force general, was elected president of Chechnya in 1991 on a pro-independence platform. He ran unopposed, in elections his opponents have criticized as fixed.

In 1994 the Kremlin backed opposition forces, providing them with tanks and fighters for a coup attempt. That attempt failed, and in December 1994 Yeltsin sent 40,000 troops into Chechnya in order to, in the words of Kremlin officials, "restore constitutional order."

The resulting war has continued for 16 months. It has seen indiscriminate bombing of civilian-populated areas. The government estimates as many as 30,000 civilians have been killed, while human rights groups put the figure closer to 50,000.

Through it all, Dudayev -- a small, thin man with a pencil-thin mustache, usually dressed in pressed military fatigues and an airman's forage cap -- has remained undefeated. Two weeks ago, his men destroyed a Russian military convoy, killing as many as 95 Russian soldiers and prompting emergency hearings in the State Duma.

Yarikhanov's statement called the rocket attack a "terrorist act," and called on Chechens to observe a three-day mourning period, and announced Dudayev's funeral would be held Wednesday in the village of Shalzhy, 5 kilometers southwest of Gekhi-Chu.

That funeral announcement raised some suspicions. Vladimir Zorin, the chairman of the Duma's committee for nationalities affairs, said Chechen tradition would oblige Dudayev's supporters to bury him in his family's cemetery in his home village of Yalkhari, and not just in any neighboring village.

Yarikhanov's statement was also critical of the peace plan offered March 31 by Russian President Boris Yeltsin, describing it as "cynical demagoguery." The statement called on Chechens to ignore the peace plan and to "come together even stronger in defense of the fatherland," Itar-Tass reported.

Itar-Tass also cited a source in the Dudayev government who obliquely tied the peace plan to Dudayev's death: The source said Dudayev was in a field near Gekhi-Chu when the rockets struck, using a satellite telephone system to call "an intermediary regarding conditions for negotiations that had been offered by Moscow," and that the time of the call had been agreed upon beforehand.