MOSCOW Russian investigators began a manhunt for a top Chechen military commander on Thursday, a move analysts said removed the last big check on the power of Chechnya's pro-Kremlin president Ramzan Kadyrov.
Kadyrov has tried to destroy the powerbase of Salim Yamadayev since a standoff between their fighters in April and he has accused him of murder and corruption.
Yamadayev's arrest warrant for murder was issued by Russia's prosecutor-general on Thursday. It means Kadyrov, son of assassinated Chechen leader Akhmad Kadyrov, has now succeeded in destroying his last serious opponent in Chechnya, analysts said.
"It's important because this had been a rare challenge to Kadyrov in Chechnya," Moscow-based defence analyst Pavel Felgenhauer said. "Now, it's clear that Yamadayev has been quashed and Kadyrov controls Chechnya."
The prosecutor-general said it was placing Yamadayev on Russia's most wanted list for a murder in 1998.
But he had fled Chechnya and was hiding in Moscow, Yamadayev's brother told Reuters by telephone.
"He is absolutely innocent," Ruslan Yamadayev said.
Kadyrov, a 31-year-old former rebel who keeps his own personal zoo, has been fundamental to the Kremlin's plan to enforce stability over Chechnya, a mainly Muslim republic in Russia's south where soldiers have fought rebels since 1994.
In return for power, Kadyrov fights the remaining rebels for the Kremlin and is rebuilding a republic where high-quality oil extraction earns millions of dollars a year.
The charismatic Yamadayev, who commanded the Vostok battalion of nearly 600 men, was the only high-profile Chechen leader whose allegiance lay with the Ministry of Defence in Moscow, rather than with Kadyrov in Grozny, Chechnya's capital.
Analysts say the Kremlin may now find it tougher to control the increasingly powerful Kadyrov who has also demanded the Russian army quit their bases in Chechnya.
Human rights groups -- who accuse Kadyrov of murder and torture, allegations he denies -- say the republic is now his personal fiefdom.
"Chechnya already effectively existed as an enclave which did not play by general Russian rules," said Tanya Lokshina, deputy head of Human Rights Watch in Moscow.
"Kadyrov's power is becoming absolute as a result of which illegal practices are spreading throughout the north Caucasus."
Kadyrov has suppressed rebel attacks in Chechnya but in neighboring Dagestan and Ingushetia bomb attacks and shootouts occur almost every day. Masked men also kidnap, beat and kill people in Ingushetia.
(Editing by William Schomberg)