Claiming a significant victory in its long-running fight against Chechen separatists, the Russian army announced Tuesday that it had killed a top rebel leader.
Russian television showed what is said to be the corpse of Aslan Maskhadov. His envoy in London told Ekho Moskvy radio that Mr. Maskhadov was probably dead, though he had no personal confirmation.
If the reports of Maskhadov's death prove true, experts say leadership is likely to pass to Shamil Basayev, engineer of terrorist attacks such as last September's Beslan school massacre and leader of the extremist wing of the Chechen independence movement.
"Things will get worse," says Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent security expert. "Maskhadov was a force for moderation."
Aslan Maskhadov, the only Chechen leader ever to win an internationally-recognized election, was born in 1951 in Central Asian exile to a family which - like most Chechens - had been deported from their homes by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin in 1944.
Trained as an artillery officer in the Red Army, Maskhadov became chief of staff of Chechen rebel forces during Chechnya's first war of independence between 1994 and 96. He outmaneuvered numerically superior Russian armies and finally drove the Kremlin to the bargaining table.
In January 1997 Maskhadov won a hard-fought election against hard-line field commander Mr. Basayev to become the only internationally recognized president of Chechnya.
As Chechen president, Maskhadov failed to rein-in the powerful warlords, especially Basayev, who turned the tiny republic into a terrorist training ground and haven for kidnappers and arms smugglers.
In the summer of 1999, forces under Basayev invaded the neighboring Russian republic of Dagestan, prompting a harsh response from Moscow.
A series of still-unsolved apartment bombings, which killed 300 Russians, led Russia to invade Chechnya and the second war - now dragging into its sixth year - began.
Maskhadov's death "would change the equation in favor of Basayev," says Vitaly Naumkin, director of the independent Institute for Political and Strategic Studies in Moscow.
"Basayev is a hard-core terrorist, but he is a national hero in Chechnya and the only other figure capable of leading the Chechen rebel bands.
"Maskhadov's death doesn't mean a final victory for the regime. The war will continue, but power will shift to the more extreme wing of the Chechen rebel movement.
"It will be more difficult now to have negotiations, since there will be no figure of Maskhadov's stature to act as a negotiating partner," says Mr. Naumkin.
Maskhadov's predecessor, the father of Chechen independence Dzokhar Dudayev, was killed by a Russian missile that homed in on his satellite telephone in the spring of 1996.
In what may be his last official statement, dated March 4, Maskhadov said the Chechen independence struggle will continue as long as the Kremlin refuses to negotiate, but claimed that the war could be ended "in a 30-minute meeting" between himself and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
• Wire material was used in this report.