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Chechen bombing death toll at 54

Wednesday, May 14, 2003

VLADIKAVKAZ, Russia -- Investigators on Tuesday pledged to hunt down the organizers of a truck bombing that shattered a Chechen government compound, killing 54 people and wounding 300.

The blast also raised questions about the level of security provided by federal forces in the war-torn republic.

The head of Chechnya's Moscow-backed administration, Akhmad Kadyrov, said Monday's attack proved that it was necessary to "introduce changes in the conduct of the counter-terrorist operation" in Chechnya, the Interfax news agency reported.

He proposed that responsibility for fighting rebels be switched to the region's own Interior Ministry instead of the Moscow-based Federal Security Service and Russian troops.

The blast occurred Monday as top officials of the Nadterechny region of northern Chechnya held their regular morning meeting in the government headquarters in Znamenskoye. Three suicide attackers blew up a truck laden with explosives nearby, reducing eight buildings to rubble and killing or injuring government workers, civilian visitors, shopkeepers and residents of neighboring apartments.

Russian and Chechen officials quickly blamed Chechen rebels for the bombing, although the exact motive remained uncertain.

The daily newspaper Izvestia reported that the motive might have been retaliation for a recent crack down on oil and metal smuggling from the region.

"We'll work until we find those who did this," Deputy Prosecutor General Sergei Fridinsky said in the Chechen capital, Grozny.

The White House condemned the bombing, saying such an act of terrorism was not justified by any "political, national of religious cause," according to a statement issued by spokesman Ari Fleischer.

Chechens in the Nadterechny district where the blast occurred spent Tuesday in mourning; many stores were closed and the main market was shuttered.

Magomed Goitiev, 53, lost his wife and two daughters, including one who was celebrating her 25th birthday on Monday.

"Yesterday, I had a whole family," he said. "Today, I am burying them all at once."

Unlike Grozny, which suffers nearly daily rebel attacks, the Nadterechny district had been considered remarkably stable. It was the first area to come under the control of Russian forces that entered the republic in 1999, starting the second war in a decade.

Even though the rebels are outnumbered and outgunned throughout the republic, they continue to inflict daily casualties. In the last 24 hours, eight federal servicemen were killed and seven wounded in rebel attacks, an official in the Moscow-backed Chechen administration said on condition of anonymity.

Federal forces shelled suspected rebel positions in the mountainous Vedeno district and detained 180 people on suspicion of aiding the rebels.

Russian forces pulled out of Chechnya in 1996 after rebels fought them to a standstill in a 20-month conflict.

The ground troops returned in September 1999 after Chechnya-based rebels mounted incursions into neighboring Dagestan and after about 300 people died in apartment explosions that Russian officials blamed on the rebels.


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