MOSCOW, April 25 -- Russian troops opened fire Thursday on a convoy of refugees in Chechnya, killing seven and continuing the 16- month-old war in the rebel region even as a top Russian military official said separatist leader Dzhokhar Dudayev was almost certainly dead. 'According to our information, this is confirmed,' Interior Minister Anatoly Kulikov said of reports Dudayev was killed three days ago in a Russian airstrike. Russian ground troops killed seven people in a convoy of refugees fleeing rocket strikes by helicopters on the Chechen town of Shali, the Interfax news agency reported. Thehelicopter strikes wounded at least 29 people, primarily civilians, in the regional center 28 miles (45 km) southeast of the Chechen capital Grozny. Helicopters and jet fighters continued to circle but did not make any new strikes against the town, where Russian commanders say hundreds of opposition fighters are hiding. Russian troops have blockaded Shali for six days. In the past, such sieges have led to massive attacks on Chechen towns and several massacres of civilians. Russian military sources said the rocket attacks came after Chechens in Shali opened fire Wednesday on helicopters flying reconnaissance missions. No Russian helicopters were reported hit. Interfax reported separatist fighters throughout Chechnya made 34 attacks on Russian forces in the past day as the war rolled on unabated. 'There have been no serious changes in the situation in the republic,' Russian commanding Gen. Vyacheslav Tikhomirov said in quotes reported by Interfax. 'For Russian President Boris Yeltsin the situation in Chechnya has become the most important issue due to reports of Dudayev's death,' Russian Defense Minister Pavel Grachev said in Beijing, where he was attending a summit with Yeltsin, the official Itar-Tass news agency reported.
Yeltsin issued an order from Beijing to his security ministries to take all necessary steps to prevent 'terrorist actions' by Chechen fighters to avenge their leader. As the fighting continued, politicians and pundits debated the potential impact of Dudayev's death on the war, which has claimed at least 30,000 civilians as well as several thousand Russian soldiers. Some analysts believe the demise of the former Chechen president could help faltering peace negotiations by giving more power to moderate Chechen leaders, like rebel chief of staff Aslan Maskhadov. Others say Dudayev's death could split the various Chechen factions, making them harder to control and more likely to use radical terrorist tactics. Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, Dudayev's vice president and political heir, has urged Chechen fighters to abandon the recently launched attempts at peace talks and to fight on. Nevertheless, doubts persist about Dudayev's death since his body has not been recovered for verification. Rebel sources said he was buried Wednesday in accordance with Muslim tradition, and declared a three-day mourning period. Several rebel leaders said Dudayev was killed when a Russian plane fired a missile that homed in on emissions from his cellular telephone in Chechnya late Sunday. But theories abound that the former Soviet Air Force general who declared Chechnya independent from Russia in 1991 may have been killed by other Chechens opposed to his leadership or perhaps that he staged his own death. Dudayev, the target of numerous assassination attempts, had led the Chechen resistance from hiding since Yeltsin ordered an invasion in December 1994 to restore the Kremlin's control over the southern region.