MOUNTING evidence that Chechen independence leader Gen. Dzhokar Dudayev was killed Sunday in a Russian rocket attack is feeding concern here that Russia's military feat may turn out to have been a political blunder.
General Dudayev has been the undisputed leader of the breakaway republic. If he is indeed dead, a struggle among his aides to succeed him may leave Moscow with no one to negotiate with in order to end the war, Russian officials worry.
Dudayev was killed, according to reports from southern Chechnya, when he was caught by chance in a rocket attack launched by Russian jets searching for targets of opportunity on Sunday evening near the village of Geki Chu.
The self-declared Chechen president withdrew from the region's capital, Grozny, 14 months ago in the face of a Russian assault. He had been hiding out in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains to the south, where most of his forces are now concentrated. From there, he had been conducting a guerrilla war of attrition that the Russian troops show no signs of being able to quell.
The rebel Chechen government hand-delivered a statement to Itar-Tass, the official Russian news agency, in Grozny on Tuesday. In it the rebel government declared that power had been transferred to Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, a Dudayev loyalist who had until now been vice president.
But Russian officials familiar with Chechen politics doubted that Mr. Yandarbiyev could hold on to power for long.
"Yandarbiyev is only a nominal figurehead," suggested Arkady Volsky, who headed Moscow's cease-fire negotiating team during ill-fated talks with Chechen rebels in Grozny last fall.
"Yandarbiyev is more of an economist and a politician than a military man," and thus ill-suited to run Chechnya in time of war, added Vladimir Zorin, head of the committee on nationalities in the Russian Duma (lower house of parliament) and formerly one of President Boris Yeltsin's top envoys to Grozny.
"There is a possibility of a loss of command and disorganized actions by the illegal armed formations," Mr. Zorin added, using Moscow's traditional form of referring to the separatists.
The most notable military leaders on the rebel side, Aslan Maskhadov and Shamil Basayev, have considerably more popular authority and would be the prime candidates in any power struggle, analysts here say.
Mr. Basayev won worldwide attention when he led a guerrilla team that stormed the Russian town of Budennovsk last June, seizing more than 1,000 hostages. Mr. Maskhadov, Dudayev's military chief of staff, led the Chechen side at the peace talks that followed Basayev's raid.
"If there is internecine fighting" between these two field commanders "on top of what is going on now, this would only complicate the situation" and lessen the chance for peace, Mr. Volsky said.
The independent Chechen news agency CHIA reported yesterday that Basayev had opposed the transfer of power to Yandarbiyev, but accepted it as an interim measure pending the election of a new leader.
The agency warned that "the death of Dzhokar Dudayev could throw Chechnya into a clan war if field commanders had preferred their chief of staff Aslan Maskhadov as the new leader" over Yandarbiyev, who was constitutionally next in line for the presidency.
Meanwhile, after only three weeks, the peace plan to end the 16-month war that President Yeltsin announced on March 31 is already a dead letter. Russian troops did not cease military operations at midnight that day, as Yeltsin declared. Indeed, bombing raids - such as the one that appears to have claimed Dudayev's life - were stepped up in defiance of announced orders.
The other key element of the plan - a readiness for the first time to negotiate, even if indirectly, with Dudayev himself - is now moot.
Fighting has been intense in recent days. A rebel attack on a Russian convoy killed at least 59 soldiers, and on Tuesday a deputy prime minister in the Russian-backed Chechen government narrowly escaped assassination.
The Kremlin's position, however, remains unchanged, and the peace plan remains on the table, Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin was quoted as saying yesterday.
The Chechen rebels' insistence on Dudayev's central demand - full independence - also remains unchanged, at least for the time being.
"At this hour of great sorrow, we, the comrades-in-arms and followers of Dzhokar Dudayev, declare that we have not only become stronger in our hatred of the aggressor and its satellites, but have become even more determined to carry the banner of Dzhokar to the victorious end," a statement by the rebel government declared.