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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Cleric Is Picked as Rebel Leader

ReutersAnzor Maskhadov in Baku on Thursday
Little-known Chechen cleric Abdul-Khalim Sadulayev will take over as interim rebel leader after Aslan Maskhadov's death earlier this week, rebel envoy Akhmed Zakayev said Thursday. Analysts said, however, that the announcement was probably an attempt by radical warlord Shamil Basayev to buy time as he figures out his next move.

The Federal Security Service announced Tuesday that Maskhadov had been killed that day in a bunker during an FSB sweep in Tolstoy-Yurt, a village near Grozny.

Zakayev, who served as Maskhadov's representative and lives in exile in London, called on all rebels to line up behind Sadulayev, a Wahhabi born in Argun who heads the rebels' Supreme Shariah Court.

"Until the holding of free elections, Abdul-Khalim Sadulayev will be leader of the military-political infrastructure of the Chechen Republic and the acting president," Zakayev said in a statement on the rebel web site Chechen Press.

"Our responsibility, and the responsibility of all Chechen citizens is to unite around our new leader to be reliable advisers and allies in the fight to liberate our motherland from Russian occupation," he said.

Basayev backed Sadulayev's candidacy in a statement posted Wednesday on another rebel web site, Kavkaz Center.

Andrei Malashenko, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, said there was simply no one to replace Maskhadov and his political experience, and that Sadulayev's rise to power was a stop-gap measure aimed at giving Basayev time to think.

"This move is essentially necessary for Basayev," Malashenko said. "It is a pause that will buy him time to figure out what he is going to do and how he is going to act. He is fully aware that he can hardly move from the battlefield to politics because no one will talk to him -- not America, not Europe, no one."

Malashenko said Sadulayev is a "colorless personality" who would not be around very long.

"He may have some influence as a religious leader, but to think that he has any political clout or that anyone would line up to vote for him is simply delusional," he said.

Maskhadov's son Anzor, who lives in Baku, said Sadulayev was a worthy successor to his father, Interfax reported.

But Ruslan Yamadayev, a former rebel who is now a State Duma deputy, suggested that Sadulayev did not exist. "This is some kind of bluff. I think there is no such person on Earth," Yamadayev said on Ekho Moskvy radio.

In a statement on the Kavkaz Center web site, Maskhadov's family appealed to world leaders to use their authority to help secure the return of Maskhadov's body.

They accused Moscow of "trampling on universal human standards" and treating Maskhadov's body in a "savage, barbaric manner," according to the statement attributed to his widow, Kusama, his daughter Fatima and Anzor Maskhadov.

"Because of this, more pain has been added to our loss," the statement said. "This is blasphemous and completely inexplicable in a modern, civilized world."

Deputy General Prosecutor Nikolai Shepel said Wednesday that the body is expected to be buried at an undisclosed location -- in line with a federal law on terrorism. Maskhadov was charged with terrorism last year for allegedly ordering the Beslan school attack and charged in 2000 with carrying out an armed revolt in Chechnya.

Lawyer Igor Trunov, who represented the victims of the Dubrovka theater hostage crisis and apartment bombings in Volgodonsk and Moscow, said that according to the law, Maskhadov's body should not be given to his family because he was killed in an anti-terrorist operation.

He said, however, that the law violates the Constitution because it allows authorities to declare anyone killed in such operations guilty of terrorism. "Even if they were completely innocent, the family can't recover the body," Trunov said by telephone. "It's a clear violation of rights."

Maskhadov's body has been taken out of Chechnya for an autopsy, after which it will be buried, Shepel said Thursday.

The autopsy is expected to last at least two weeks, he said.

Details remained sketchy as to exactly how Maskhadov was killed. Major General Ilya Shabalkin, spokesman for the federal forces in Chechnya, said by telephone that the preliminary version is that Maskhadov died in an explosion after FSB commandos tried to blast their way into the bunker where he was hiding.

Citing the ongoing autopsy, Shabalkin declined to comment on a statement attributed to him in The New York Times on Wednesday that Maskhadov was shell-shocked after the blast and was killed by commandos in an ensuing gun battle.

Pictures of Maskhadov's body released by the FSB show what appeared to be a small bullet wound under his left eye. Kommersant, citing forensics experts, said the images indicate that Maskhadov may have been shot in the back of the head and that the injury under his eye was the exit wound.

Ivan Buromsky, a professor at the Russian State Medical University's forensic medicine department, said exit wounds tend to be larger than entrance wounds.

"But there are a lot of factors involved, including distance and the weapon used," Buromsky said by telephone. "In fact, sometimes exit and entrance wounds can look very similar."

Buromsky also said that blood that appeared to have trickled out of Maskhadov's left ear in the FSB images gives little insight into how he died. "Any time there is an internal head injury -- be it from a blast, a gunshot or a blunt object -- blood is going flow out of the ears," he said.

Moscow-backed Chechen First Deputy Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov backed off from his initial remarks that Maskhadov had been accidentally shot by a bodyguard. "I was just joking, you know, that a bodyguard's gun accidentally went off," Kadyrov told Interfax. "In reality, they threw a grenade in there, and Maskhadov died from that."

Kadyrov also denied a web site report that his security forces had killed Maskhadov on Sunday and that he had asked federal forces to take credit.

In Moscow, the Foreign Ministry angrily lashed out at Poland for criticizing Maskhadov's death. Polish Foreign Minister Adam Rotfeld called the killing "a crime" and "a political mistake because ... Maskhadov was the only partner with whom an agreement could be sought."

The Foreign Ministry said Poland does not understand the situation in Chechnya and the war against terrorism.