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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Khachilayev Shot Dead in Dagestan

APNadir Khachilayev photographed last month
Dagestan's most prominent opposition leader, Nadir Khachilayev, has been gunned down in an apparent contract hit that investigators say may have been ordered by political rivals ahead of State Duma elections or by locals in a blood feud.

Khachilayev, the 41-year-old informal leader of Dagestan's fifth-largest ethnic group, the Laks, was shot dead in an ambush outside his fortress-like house on Ulitsa Titova in downtown Makhachkala on Monday evening.

Investigators have no strong leads and are looking "in several directions," Dagestani prosecutor's office spokesman Ali Temirbekov said.

Among them is the possibility that Khachilayev may have been killed for his political or business activities or by relatives of those killed by his supporters during his turbulent career, Temirbekov said by telephone from Makhachkala.

Several policemen were killed before and during a armed seizure by Khachilayev and his supporters of the Dagestani government building in Makhachkala in 1998. Dagestan, as other republics in the North Caucasus, has a centuries-long tradition of settling blood feuds, and the relatives of the policemen may have been trying to settle the score, said Alexei Malashenko, Caucasus expert with the Carnegie Moscow Center.

Temirbekov, whose office is leading the investigation, said investigators have identified several suspects but not made any arrests.

Khachilayev had been receiving threats since he decided earlier this year to run for one of Dagestan's three seats in the State Duma, said one of Khachilayev's acquaintances, Maxim Shevchenko.

Shevchenko, who is editor of the Moscow-based Smysl magazine, said Khachilayev told him that a senior Dagestan official had warned him to stay out of politics or "get shredded to pieces." He said Khachilayev identified the official in a phone call last Thursday.

"This was a politically motivated murder," said Shevchenko, who has traveled to the North Caucasus as a journalist and maintained personal contacts with Khachilayev since 1996.

Khachilayev was opening the door of his SUV on Monday evening when two attackers opened fire from a passing car. Khachilayev was hit in the heart and shoulder and died on the spot, Temirbekov said. A companion suffered an injury to one hand.

The gunmen riddled the SUV with bullets despite the fact that Khachilayev was accompanied by several bodyguards. They then fled in a Lada hatchback, which was later found abandoned along with a Kalashnikov submachine gun and a Kedr submachine gun about 2 kilometers away, Temirbekov said.

He said investigators are looking for three natives of neighboring Chechnya who bought the Lada in the Dagestani town of Khasav-Yurt last year.

The Kedr gun, which is used in police patrols, was listed as missing in Chechnya in 1996 -- prompting Dagestani police to speculate that the murder was ordered by Chechen warlords, Russian news agencies reported Tuesday.

Reached by telephone Tuesday, Dagestani Interior Ministry officials refused to comment.

Chechen-based warlords Shamil Basayev and Khattab announced in 1999 that they had "sentenced" Khachilayev to death for siding with federal authorities rather than joining a botched attempt to instigate separatism in Dagestan. Khattab was killed last year.

Basayev, however, does not have any pressing reason to make good on the killing now, four years after the fact, Malashenko said. 

He said the loss of the well-known figure deals a serious blow to the Lak movement. Given the Laks' poor presentation in Dagestan's branches of power, which are dominated by the Avars and Dargins, the murder may eventually undermine the fragile balance and spark serious ethnic tensions in the republic, he said.

Dagestan is home to dozens of ethnic groups who lived together peacefully thanks to a fair ethnic representation in the government structures in Soviet times. Dagestan's current leadership has started to dismantle this representation, and Khachilayev's murder may further destabilize the situation, Malashenko said.

Khachilayev entered Dagestan's political scene in the early 1990s and in 1995 was elected chairman of the Union of Russian Muslims. As chairman, he negotiated the release of hostages held by Chechen rebels during their seizure of the Dagestani village of Pervomaiskoye in 1996.

Khachilayev also helped set up the 1996 peace talks between then-Security Council Secretary Alexander Lebed and rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov that ended the first Chechen war. Khachilayev won a Duma seat in 1996 and a year later joined a pro-government parliamentary faction.

His career as a federal politician was left in tatters after he and armed supporters seized the Dagestani government building in May 1998 in a rampage started by a clash between Khachilayev's bodyguards and a police patrol.

Khachilayev fled soon after the police re-established control of the building and was arrested in Chechnya in 1999. He and his brother Magomed were convicted of hostage-taking in 2002 and sentenced to 1 1/2 and three years in prison, respectively. They were immediately freed under a national amnesty.

Khachilayev maintained a relatively low profile after the conviction, focusing on his duties as the head of the Dagestani branch of the Russian Peace Foundation and the practice of a strict form of Islam. He re-entered the political scene with a bid for a seat in the Dagestani parliament in March this year. He lost.

He was the elder of four brothers. The second to youngest brother, Adam, was killed in Makhachkala in 1991 in what the local media described as a blood feud. The second oldest brother, Magomed, was killed in a dispute with a former bodyguard in 2000. The surviving brother, Dzhabrail, is a businessman.

Born July 10, 1959, into a sheepherder's family in the mountainous village of Kum, Nadir Khachilayev went to a local school and worked as a sheepherder before joining the army at 18. He was fond of karate and entered a sports college after completing his military service. Khachilayev then gave up sports for literature, enrolling at the Literature Institute in Moscow and eventually publishing a short novel in the respected Oktyabr magazine in 1985.

He was buried in Kum on Tuesday.