THE sound of sporadic gunfire in the distance mingled incongruously with a bellicose chorus of croaking toads as 15 heavily armed commandos in camouflage uniforms and black masks loaded their assault rifles and set off on foot in the dead of night towards a remote village in Chechnya.
The men, members of an anti-terrorist unit of Chechen special forces loyal to Moscow, walked in silence, a few paces apart, through fields lit by a star-studded sky. I watched them as they crouched in the wet grass to avoid being spotted by enemy lookouts, exchanging hand signals and whispering urgent commands.
We leapt over ditches and barbed wire as the men completed the approach to their target, an unassuming single- storey brick house beside a dirt track in Vedeno, home village of Shamil Basayev, Russia’s most wanted terrorist.
Basayev was the mastermind of the Moscow theatre siege in 2002 that ended with 171 dead, and of last year’s attack on the Beslan school in which 330 were killed. There is a $10m (Â£5.4m) bounty on his head.
Inside the house, according to the commandos’ informant, was a rebel loyal to Basayev and his fight for an independent Chechnya. He was also believed to be part of a gang that had murdered four women for the crime of having contact with pro-Russian Chechens.
The commandos had been hunting him for months. Now their quarry had been spotted returning to his home and a trap was about to be sprung.
While they were observing the house for signs of movement, the ground suddenly shook under the shuddering force of two artillery rounds fired into nearby hills by a Russian force engaged in a separate operation.
As if taking the explosions as a signal, five commandos sprinted across the track, their lithe shadows chasing one another across the wall of the building, and took up positions under the windows. It was shortly before 1am — time for the the commander, a bearded 27-year-old Chechen with hand grenades strapped to his waist, to give the order to storm.
These were the hardmen of Chechnya’s Eastern Battalion, a 600-strong unit under the command of Russia’s ministry of defence.
Based in Gudermes, 25 miles east of the bombed-out capital, Grozny, the battalion is led by Sulim Yamadayev, a 33-year-old Chechen who fought the Russians in the republic’s first war from 1994-96 but changed sides and joined Moscow’s battle against Islamic militants in the current conflict, which began in 1999.
Yamadayev’s mission is to liquidate the radical Chechens and their Arab allies who are still fighting the Russians after six years. At the top of his hit-list is Basayev.
When the order came to move in, the commandos fired into the air from AK-47s as they crashed through a yard gate and on into the house, darting from room to room as a shocked elderly couple screamed for help.
A 15-year-old boy, his face white and petrified, was dragged out by his hair, crying for his mother, and was pinned to the ground with a Makarov pistol against his neck.
Next to him three men, one middle-aged and two in their twenties, were forced face down onto the ground with rifles pressed into their backs. The elderly couple — apparently the boy’s grandparents — were warned off by an AK-47 round fired into the sky.
It soon became clear that none of those being held at gunpoint fitted the wanted man’s description and, after retreating briefly to a nearby field, several commandos raced back inside. They returned a few minutes later, dragging the wanted man with his arms locked behind his back.
After a brief interrogation his head was covered with a sack and he was carried down the track on the shoulders of one of the commandos to the banks of a mountain river where armed men were waiting in two cars.
He was placed in the back of a military jeep and driven for two hours over treacherous mountain roads to a base on the Chechen plain. Rock music blared from the vehicle’s speakers to ensure that he did not hear his captors’ voices.
Back at the house, a sack containing two grenade launchers and an AK-47 was unearthed close by. The Chechens claimed he had hidden it there.
The raid in Vedeno was one of hundreds that have been carried out by Yamadayev’s forces. More than 10 years after the beginning of the Chechen war, which has killed 100,000 people, large-scale military operations have ceased and life is slowly being rebuilt. But the deaths are far from over.
Thousands of Chechens are now fighting with the Russians against their former comrades-in-arms. Most are under the command of Razman Kadyrov, whose father, the pro-Moscow President Akhmad Kadyrov, was blown up by a bomb in Grozny last year.
Yamadayev has one of the most dangerous jobs in Chechnya: to kill Basayev before he can fulfil a pledge to carry out further attacks this summer.Almost every day Yamadayev’s men penetrate the perilous mountain areas where Basayev is believed to be hiding.
For Yamadayev, killing the rebel leader is not only a question of honour. He is also driven by an ardent desire for revenge.
“I only have one nightmare: that someone should get to Basayev before me,”? he said, sipping tea and adjusting the pistol strapped to his waist.
“Hunting him down has become my mission, should it be the last thing I do in my life. He is evil and I won’t stop until I have rid our republic of him. The knot is tightening around his neck and it’s only a matter of time before we get to him.”?
Yamadayev’s quest is profoundly personal. Two years ago his brother Dzhabrail, who led the unit that was to become the Eastern Battalion, was killed at the age of 33 in Vedeno after Basayev’s men planted a powerful bomb under the couch where he slept.
President Vladimir Putin awarded Dzhabrail a posthumous Hero of Russia medal, the country’s highest military award, and his brother took over the unit. Yamadayev has seen 68 of his men killed by the rebels.
The father of four small children, he says he has survived 16 assassination attempts in six years, the latest when his heavily armoured Lada 4×4 was hit by a home-made bomb.
Two earlier attempts left him wounded in one arm and a leg. The left side of his face also bears deep scars from an explosion he barely survived during a ferocious battle with the Russians back in the days when he regarded them as the enemy.
Yamadayev is guarded around the clock by more than a dozen Chechens with long black beards, AK-47s, rocket-propelled grenades and hand grenades. His headquarters, which he recently kitted out with flat-screen televisions at his own expense, is guarded by armoured personnel carriers.
Even when he is 1,000 miles away in Moscow, he is constantly shadowed by armed guards.
That the Yamadayev brothers used to be close allies and personal friends of Basayev is characteristic of Chechnya’s treacherously shifting allegiances. Although they became successful businessmen in the post-communist Moscow in the early 1990s, they returned home at the start of the first war of independence against the Russians. During that conflict, Yamadayev mounted a daring raid to rescue Basayev when he was surrounded by Russian forces in Grozny.
“It took us four days and we came under heavy fire, but eventually we got to him and helped him break out of the siege,”? he recalled. “He was so happy he was dancing and jumping up and down.”?
After the Russian forces were defeated and left Chechnya in 1996, the breakaway republic was plunged into lawlessness. Yamadayev, although a devout Muslim, became a fierce opponent of the extreme Wahhabi militants who began to take over much of the republic.
In July 1999, shortly before Russian troops were ordered back into Chechnya, Yamadayev made a defiant stand against Basayev, detaining some of his men and beating them.
In a letter sent to Yamadayev’s elder brother Ruslan, who has since become a member of the Russian parliament, Basayev acknowledged that he owed his former ally his life. But he demanded an apology and $50,000 compensation for the maltreatment of his men.
“If you fail to fulfil even one of my demands I will take it as a sign that you want war,”? Basayev wrote.
The Yamadayevs’ handwritten reply was curt and concise. “Shamil,”? it read. “We do not want war but if you ask for it you will get it.”?
Yamadayev, who has portraits of his slain brother in every room at his base, said that on two occasions he came close to crushing his enemy — but failed at the last moment. “He is smart, ruthless and very shrewd,”? he said. “He switches hideouts regularly.
“He only lets four or five of his most trusted men get close to him, so getting someone to betray his location is not easy. But we are working on it and his days are numbered.”?
As if Yamadayev’s task were not complicated enough, Basayev is thought to have a network of informants in the security services.
While only about 20% of the local population is believed to sympathise with Basayev’s cause, most are too terrified to come forward with information. Hundreds of Chechens who have co-operated with Moscow have been executed in cold blood by the rebels.
Yamadayev has had other successes, however, among them the killing last year of Abu Walid, a Saudi-born militant accused of organising the Moscow siege with Basayev. The militant’s head was cut off and sent to a Russian forensic laboratory. Yamadayev is to be rewarded by Putin with a Hero of Russia medal of his own at a ceremony in the Kremlin this summer.
He estimates that Basayev has no more than 1,000 diehard radicals under his command. He disdainfully calls them shaitans, or devils with no faith. Nevertheless, they are experienced guerrilla fighters and know how and where to hide.
On another raid last week I escorted a group of 12 men in search of a rebel in a hamlet near Vedeno, a seemingly idyllic village where Basayev had kept a lavish red-brick mansion — until it was blown up by the Russians.
When they stormed one of the houses, the only person they found was the rebel’s elderly mother, asleep in bed. They covered her mouth to prevent her from shouting as they searched from room to room. But the suspect had slipped away, leaving behind a machinegun with two full magazines and a pistol hidden in a flour sack.
“Until less than a year ago we used to get attacked as soon as we left base,”? said Mogomed, a 28-year-old veteran of the Eastern Battalion who fought the Russians in the first war. “Now we are winning this war and squeezing them.
“Sometimes I recognise on the walkie-talkie the voice of someone I fought alongside when we battled against the Russians. We insult each other and start firing at one another.”?
Back at one of Yamadayev’s bases, the suspect in the murder of the four women was being interrogated in a dark, damp cellar, his face to the wall and his arms tied behind his back.
The man had been identified by other suspected rebels caught by Yamadayev’s men. Looking shocked and speaking softly, he swore his innocence on the Koran and denied that the sack of weapons said to have been dug up near his house belonged to him.
The interrogator was unimpressed. “After a few days here people like him start to talk, and eventually end up singing like birds and crying like babies,”? he said. “If he took part in the murder of those poor four women he will pay dearly for his crimes.”?
A DECADE OF SLAUGHTER
December 1994: President Yeltsin sends Russian troops into Chechnya to quash the independence movement
June 1995: Chechen rebels hold up to 2,000 hostages at a hospital in Budennovsk, south Russia. More than 100 die after botched commando raids
January 1996: Militants hold up to 3,000 people at a hospital in Kizlyar, Dagestan. The gunmen escape after a Russian attack, but more than 20 hostages are killed
September 1999: Bombs destroy apartment blocks in Moscow, Buynaksk and Volgodonsk, killing about 300 people. President Putin sends Russian troops back into Chechnya, blaming Chechen rebels
October 2002: 130 hostages and 41 Chechen terrorists die as Russian troops storm a Moscow theatre to end a siege
December 2002: 80 die in a bomb attack on a local government HQ in Grozny
May 2003: Suicide truck bombers kill 59 in a northern Chechnya government building
July 2003: Two women suicide bombers kill 15 at an open-air Moscow rock festival
August 2003: At least 50 die after a bomb-laden truck is crashed into a military hospital at Mozdok, North Ossetia
December 2003: An explosion on a commuter train on Russia’s southern fringe kills 46
February 2004: A suicide bomber kills 39 on a Moscow underground train
May 2004: A bomb planted in a Grozny stadium kills the Kremlin-backed President Akhmad Kadyrov
August 2004: Two Russian passenger aircraft are blown up, possibly by suicide bombers, killing 89
September 2004: 330 hostages, mostly children, and 13 terrorists are killed after the Beslan school siege in North Ossetia