Russian authorities said Monday that their forces had killed a feared Chechen commander, the most senior rebel to be slain in the more than 20 months since military action resumed in the southern republic.
The killing of Arbi Barayev was confirmed by the Chechen side. The Russians claimed that 17 other rebels died in the three-day operation, while the Chechens conceded 20 dead, including several commanders.
Barayev, 27, was linked to the kidnapping industry in Chechnya, which raged after Russia withdrew forces at the end of the 1994-96 war. Russia renewed its war with the rebels in 1999, and although it won control of most Chechen territory and suppressed the kidnappings, it hasn't succeeded in quelling rebel opposition.
In the current conflict, the Russian side had not succeeded in killing any key rebel commanders until Barayev's death.
"It's a great success," said Kremlin spokesman Sergei V. Yastrzhembsky.
Vyacheslav Izmailov, military analyst of the Novaya Gazeta newspaper in Moscow and a specialist on kidnappings in Chechnya, said Barayev was "the most notorious, the most arrogant, the most unruly, the most vicious and the most cruel Chechen warlord."
He said Barayev's gang had kidnapped hundreds of victims, most of them Chechens, and that the warlord personally tortured and killed some of his victims.
Barayev's name has been linked with several high-profile kidnappings: the 1998 abductions of three British engineers and a New Zealander, all later beheaded, and the kidnappings of two British aid workers in 1997.
"Barayev routinely kidnapped hundreds of Chechens whose names and stories never became public knowledge and were never mentioned by the Kremlin in its prewar propaganda campaign," Izmailov said.
"He built prisons all across Chechnya for his hostages and palaces for himself and his relatives in Urus-Martan and Alkhan-Kala."
Barayev had his own army of several hundred fighters.
Russian authorities did not show Barayev's body to journalists Monday, despite promises to do so. They did show film footage of a body lying on a stretcher. They also announced that the body had been identified by Barayev's relatives.
The Chechen rebels' Web site (http://www.kavkaz.org) said Barayev had become a martyr.
Accounts of the operation to kill Barayev were contradictory, and it was not clear how fierce the fighting was in the village of Alkhan-Kala, southwest of Grozny, the Chechen capital.
The Russians did not reveal how large the force was that tracked down Barayev, but some reports said several thousand soldiers were involved.
The Russians blockaded Alkhan-Kala in the operation, which began Friday, and rounded up hundreds of Chechen men.
Ilya Shabalkin, a spokesman for the Russian Federal Security Service, said 800 men were taken. The Chechens reported 500 arrests. Shabalkin said Moscow believed that 30 of the men were rebels and that others were still being checked.
Chechen officials said civilian casualties were heavy. The Russian military said no civilians died.
Russian officials said Barayev called other rebel leaders for help by radio but that the village was so heavily surrounded that none of them could come to his aid.
Barayev was shot when Russian forces opened fire on his house. Other rebels buried his body in the ruins of another house.
A Chechen woman, Zayna Abdurakhmanova, was among those who fled the village. In an interview with Russian television, she said her 6-year-old son was injured in the fighting.
"Are we bandits or what? Why do it to him? He is just 6 years old. Why did he get shot?" she said.
Russian authorities said there would be more operations targeting rebel leaders.