MOSCOW - Russia's brutal 1994-1996 Chechen campaign mastermind and former defence minister Pavel Grachev died in Moscow on Sunday at the age of 64 after a highly divisive but historic career.

The Afghan war veteran was the target of rights groups for convincing the late Boris Yeltsin to unleash what he had promised would be a "victorious Blitzkrieg in Chechnya" meant to stamp out a growing insurgency.

Grachev's tanks ended up going up in flames in the first offensive on the capital Grozny - a humiliation that prompted him to order carpet bombings that subsequently claimed the lives of tens of thousands and displaced many more.

"We just received a call from the Vishnevsky hospital confirming that Pavel Sergeyevich (Grachev) is dead," his colleague Nikolai Deryabin told the Interfax-AVN military news agency.

Grachev had been resting at the military hospital's emergency ward since September 12 with an unspecified medical condition.

The plain-talking minister headed defence from Russia's first full year of post-Soviet independence in 1992 until the summer of 1996.

He was removed during a heated political power struggle with the late General Alexander Lebed that was quickly followed by a truce agreement in which Chechnya gained de facto independence in a sovereign Russia.

Federal troops rumbled back into the area in 1999 in the final months of Yeltsin's presidency under the leadership of then prime minister Vladimir Putin.

Grachev had by this time effectively vanished from politics and assumed a quiet role as a paid adviser to a Russian military production plant.

'Played roles for which he was not suited' "He was a very ambiguous figure. You could say that he was quite unfortunate - both in terms of his military fate and political career," said Alexander Konovalov, an analyst with the Institute of Strategic Assessment think tank.

"After all, it was his orders that brought in (elite) Kantemirov Division tanks to Moscow" in 1993 during Yeltsin's bloody constitutional battle with the pro-Soviet parliament - a building he eventually pulverised into submission. "He played roles for which he was not very well suited and that he did not really want," Konovalov told Vesti 24 state television.

The gruff and stocky general's career began brightly enough in the Soviet era with an assignment to train scout platoons in the Baltic republics - a politically explosive region that was the first to break away from Moscow.

He later became a Hero of the Soviet Union for his deft handling of paratroopers during what was otherwise an Afghan misadventure that contributed massively to the Moscow empire's eventual collapse.

Grachev seemed a logical choice by the time Yeltsin began searching for an honest man who could be trusted with one of the world's biggest armies at a pivotal time for both Russian and global affairs.

The choice paid off when Grachev stood at Yeltsin's side during the ugly 1993 confrontation with the hardline parliament that many said was the death knell of Russia's initially optimistic period of pro-democratic reforms. And it was Grachev, along with a coterie of army and police insiders, who convinced an increasingly ailing Yeltsin to launch a small and victorious offensive that could save his image with an increasingly untrusting public.

The Chechen rebels - trained on the very same equipment in the Soviet era - quickly found holes in Russia's approaches and managed to inflict tremendous damage once the federal force spread out over the mountain terrain.

Grachev was especially despised by rights groups for either giving the green light to or hushing up army atrocities in civilian villages such as Samashki that underwent sustained bombardments at the start of the war. Many today call Grachev a warrior who was respected by his soldiers and other commander much more than by the country for which he served. The respected independent military analyst Alexander Golts simply called Grachev "one of our best defence ministers" who suffered from having to follow orders during some of the most conflicted years of contemporary Russia.

"He would have ended up being a very well respected man had he lived under different circumstances," Golts told Moscow Echo radio.