Pro-Russian opposition leaders in the north Caucasian republic of Chechnya announced Tuesday that they had toppled President Dzhokar Dudayev, the fierce former Soviet air force general who has been a thorn in Moscow’s side since he declared his tiny Muslim republic to be independent from Russia in 1991.
Dudayev, however, appeared to be firmly in control at least in the Chechen capital, Grozny.
In an interview with the Interfax news agency late Tuesday evening, the president said his overthrow had been announced in order to pave the way for Russian troops to invade Chechnya, a republic of 1.2 million people.
The commander of an elite Russian paratroop division, responding to rumors that his unit in Tula, in central Russia, had been put on alert, denied that Moscow had any plans to invade Chechnya.
The coup leader, Umar Avturkhanov, appeared on Russian television Tuesday evening claiming that up to 80% of the Chechen people and most of the military supported him. Avturkhanov also said Moscow had recognized his group, the Provisional Council, as the only legitimate authority in Chechnya.
“Russia has made its choice,” he said.
Although Avturkhanov spoke from Moscow, Ostankino television reported from Grozny that troops loyal to him controlled most of the Chechen countryside while Dudayev’s units were firmly in control of the capital and showed no signs of surrendering.
Several large army units had not yet chosen sides, according to Ostankino. No fighting was reported.
Moscow has made no secret of its contempt for Dudayev, a defiant maverick who came to power in a disputed election in 1991 and has since slashed all ties with Russia and insisted that Chechnya be recognized as a sovereign nation. The Russian Federation considers Chechnya to be one of its 88 republics.
For his part, Dudayev blames Moscow for an assassination attempt against him earlier this year. And he accuses Russia of trying to reconquer its lost colony and oppress the Chechen people.
The 50-year-old former general is the leading bad boy of the former Soviet Union. The onetime nuclear bomber pilot sports a pencil mustache, elevator shoes and a flock of machine gun-toting bodyguards in baggy Italianate suits. The president is also said to have a black belt in karate.
His outlaw image is in keeping with that of his countrymen, who are arguably the most hated and discriminated-against minority in the former Soviet Union.
Chechens recall with bitterness the Stalin-era deportation of their entire people; but Russians remember Chechnya only as the homeland of the much-feared “Chechen mafia” and of the terrorists who have been arrested in connection with four recent airplane and bus hijackings.
Opposition forces have had sporadic gun battles with Dudayev forces in the streets of Grozny for months, and a rocket once slammed into the presidential headquarters.
But the situation in Chechnya grew even more tense this week as local leaders united in the Provisional Council and made it known they intended to oust Dudayev.
Upping the ante Monday, the Russian government accused Dudayev of persecuting the 150,000 Russians who live in Chechnya. President Boris N. Yeltsin’s chief of staff, Sergei A. Filatov, also alleged that Dudayev supporters beheaded three Chechens who had helped Russian police catch a band of hijackers in southern Russia and had displayed their severed heads in downtown Grozny.
The Russian Interior Ministry produced two gruesome photographs of heads and headless corpses, which were broadcast repeatedly Monday on Russian state television. Journalists in Grozny, however, have turned up no evidence that any such beheading ever took place. The Moscow Times newspaper, in a sharply worded editorial published Tuesday, suggested that the Yeltsin government may be trying to prepare the Russian public for a military incursion.
On Tuesday at noon, the Provisional Council headed by Avturkhanov sent a statement to Russian news agencies saying that Dudayev had been removed from office. The council also promised to hold new elections in the spring. Chechnya’s general prosecutor retaliated by issuing an order for Avturkhanov’s arrest on charges of high treason.
Within a few hours, a senior Russian official, Deputy Prime Minister Sergei M. Shakhrai, praised the Provisional Council, saying its principles were “vital to the survival of the Chechen nation.” He praised the council for promising to hold elections and said Moscow would be willing to negotiate with a delegation of its leaders.
But other Russian officials warned against putting too much stock in the Provisional Council’s claim to have seized control of what has been a virtual police state.
Times special correspondent Chris Bird, in Grozny, contributed to this report.