Chechen leader hospitalized; officals suspect poisoning

Monday, September 29, 2003

ROSTOV-ON-DON, Russia -- The prime minister in Chechnya's Moscow-backed government was hospitalized after what Chechen officials said Sunday may have been an attempt to poison him.

Poison may have been slipped into something Anatoly Popov ate while visiting Gudermes, Chechnya's second-largest city, said the Emergency Situations Ministry's Chechen branch.

Popov complained of pain as his motorcade returned from Gudermes to the Chechen capital, Grozny, on Saturday night and he was taken to a hospital, said Sergei Kozhemyaka, a duty officer with the Emergency Situations Ministry's branch in southern Russia.

Chechen officials working in the Moscow-backed government are a frequent target for rebels, but the attacks usually involve guns and explosives rather than poison.

Russia's state-controlled Channel One reported that doctors had decided to evacuate Popov to a Moscow clinic for further treatment. Kozhemyaka said he could not confirm that information.

Russian news reports have said that Popov is in stable but serious condition and is still alert and receiving reports and updates from the Chechen administration. Popov, 43, is temporarily serving as Chechnya's acting president while his boss, Akhmad Kadyrov, is on the campaign trail.

Chechens will elect a regional president next Sunday in a vote the Kremlin is touting as a key step on the road to peace. Kadyrov is widely expected to win since one of his main challengers dropped out and the other was forced off the ballot by a court ruling.

Russian forces continue to battle Chechen fighters in the mainly Muslim republic's second war in a decade. Russian forces fought a 1994-96 war against Chechen separatists that ended in a cease-fire and de facto independence for the region. In 1999, troops returned after rebel raids on a neighboring Russian region and a series of deadly apartment-house bombings in Russian cities that were blamed on the rebels.

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