Suicide attacker bombs bus in Russia, killing at least 16

Friday, June 6, 2003

VLADIKAVKAZ, Russia -- A female suicide attacker detonated a bomb Thursday near a bus carrying soldiers and civilians to work at a military airfield near Chechnya, killing at least 16 people. It was the third suicide attack in the Russian Caucasus in less than a month.

No one claimed responsibility, but suspicion fell on Chechen rebels who have been fighting Russian forces for more than 3 1/2 years. Russian soldiers are reported killed in rebel attacks in and around Chechnya almost daily.

The red-and-white bus was headed from the city of Mozdok in the North Ossetia region, the military headquarters for Russian operations in Chechnya, to a nearby airfield when the woman approached as it stopped near a railway crossing and blew herself up, officials said.

There were conflicting reports about whether the woman -- dressed in a white coat, the customary uniform of medical personnel -- got on the bus or detonated her explosives from outside.

The force of the blast blew out some of the bus' windows, cracked others and left the side of the vehicle pockmarked with holes and dents. Citing regional prosecutor Alexander Begulov, Channel One television said the bomb was filled with metal balls.

Russian prosecutors said the death toll was at least 16, though it wasn't clear if that figure included the attacker. A regional Interior Ministry official said the attacker and 18 others were killed. Russian television showed footage of bodies laid out under white sheets near the bus.

At least 27 on bus

The passengers included an air crew and support workers from the Prokhladny air base four miles from Mozdok, said North Ossetia's emergency situations minister, Boris Dzgoyev.

Dzgoyev said there were at least 27 people on the bus. Twelve people were hospitalized, three of them in grave condition, he said.

The attack dealt a further blow to the Kremlin's efforts to portray Chechnya as increasingly stable after a decade that has seen two wars and widespread lawlessness. Authorities immediately set up roadblocks on all roads leading into Chechnya, causing a massive traffic jam as troops searched cars and checked documents, Russia's TVS television reported.

Suicide bombings on May 12 and May 14 in Chechnya killed at least 78 people, and raised further questions about how much control federal troops really have over the war-ruined republic.

There were already rules in place barring military vehicles from picking up passengers for fear of terrorist attacks, the Interior Ministry official said.

"Unfortunately this is not a single case," Prosecutor General Vladimir Ustinov told President Vladimir Putin in a briefing, referring to suicide attacks. "This was brought to us from other countries. Earlier in the Chechen conflict there were no suicide attackers."

Russian officials have repeatedly tried to portray the war against rebels in Chechnya as a part of the global war on terror, and claim that foreign influences are supporting the rebels, possibly including al-Qaida.

Among Chechen rebels, suicide attacks by women have become an increasingly common tactic. A woman blew herself up at a religious ceremony in Chechnya on May 14, killing at least 18 people, and women wearing explosives belts took part in the hostage-taking raid on a Moscow theater last October, although they were killed before detonating the bombs.

The latest attack came a day after Russia's lower house of parliament, the State Duma, passed an amnesty plan for Chechen rebels in the second of three readings.

Putin has billed the proposal as part of peace efforts tied to Chechens' approval of a new constitution in March that cements the republic's status as part of Russia.

Critics say the new constitution, which will be followed by parliamentary and presidential elections, and the amnesty can not replace negotiations with the rebel leaders -- something the Kremlin has ruled out.

In other action involving Chechnya, eight Russian soldiers were killed and three wounded in rebel attacks over the last 24 hours, a Chechen official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. Federal forces went on bombing raids in the republic's southern mountains, and rounded up 160 people suspected of aiding the rebels.

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