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Sunday, November 26, 2006

Jordanian Chechen Chief Dies in Gunfight

MAKHACHKALA, Russia -- A Jordanian who commanded foreign mercenaries in Chechnya and was reportedly al-Qaida's top emissary in the troubled North Caucasus died Sunday in a shootout with police, security officials said.

Abu Khavs was killed in a four-hour gunbattle in the Dagestani town of Khasavyurt, near the Chechen border, along with four other militants, said Mikhail Merkulov, deputy director for the Dagestani branch of the Federal Security Service, or FSB.

Merkulov called Abu Khavs "a foreign mercenary of Jordanian origin" who was the main al-Qaida contact for the North Caucasus.

State-run television showed a house apparently ravaged by gunfire, along with the bodies of at least five alleged militants. One FSB officer was wounded, said Irina Volkova, a spokeswoman for the service.

In Moscow, the FSB's central headquarters said in a statement that Abu Khavs' presence in Dagestan signaled that he may have been trying to flee Russia and called his death a "telling psychological blow to all the fighters remaining in the North Caucasus mountains."

At least one rebel-linked Web site, daymonk.org, said five militants were killed in Khasavyurt, but made no mention of Abu Khavs.

According to Russian security officials, Abu Khavs _ whose name has also been spelled Havs or Hafs _ was a commander of foreign mercenaries once active in Chechnya.

As large-scale fighting has died down in Chechnya, the number of foreigners fighting there has dropped. In recent years, violence in the Russian region has mainly taken the form of hit-and-run attacks against federal forces and local allied paramilitaries.

Russian forces have killed or captured a number of Chechen rebel leaders in recent years, including the notorious warlord Shamil Basayev and Abdul-Khalim Sadulayev, who was the one-time president of the separatists' self-declared government.

Russian security officials say Abu Khavs took over as al-Qaida's top emissary in Chechnya in 2004 after the death of Saudi-born rebel chief Abu Walid.

In an interview with a Turkish newspaper that was posted on the rebel-allied Web site Kavkaz Center, Khavs maintained that separatist fighters were seeing new successes in their war against Russian forces, and he asserted that few fighters had responded to the amnesty offered by federal officials earlier this year.

"The mere fact that the Russian authority has taken such an action testifies to the strength of the Chechen Resistance, and weakness and feebleness of the Russian army," he said according to the interview, dated Nov. 12.

The origin of Khavs' alias is unclear. One of several independent militias now operating in Iraq is called the Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigade _ named after former Osama bin Laden lieutenant Mohammed Atef, who used the nom de guerre Abu Hafs. Atef was killed in a U.S. airstrike in Afghanistan in 2001.
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