Explosion in Chechnya kills Kremlin-backed president
GROZNY, Russia -- A bomb ripped through a stadium in the Chechen capital during a Victory Day ceremony on Sunday, killing provincial President Akhmad Kadyrov, the Kremlin's point man for efforts to control separatist violence in the war-wracked region.
No group claimed responsibility for Sunday's explosion, which killed as many as 24 people, but suspicion inevitably fell on separatist rebels, who have made Kadyrov a top target and tried to assassinate him several times.
Police and soldiers launched an extensive search after the blast and detained at least five people, news reports said.
The attack harshly underlined the difficulties Russia faces in restoring order in the southern region despite a massive troop presence. It was expected to set off a new round of killing between Kadyrov's camp and his enemies.
The stadium's VIP section collapsed into a jagged hole in the explosion, sending up a plume of brown smoke. Panicked people, including many elderly dressed in their Sunday best, clambered over the bleachers as gunshots split the air amid the chaos.
Footage on Russia's NTV television showed men in uniform dragging away the body of a man resembling Kadyrov and covered in blood.
The explosive was believed to be a land mine, said Sergei Kozhemyaka, a spokesman for the southern Russian branch of the Emergency Situations Ministry. NTV television quoted an investigator as saying the bomb was made from a 152 mm artillery shell detonated with a wire or timer.
The bomb was planted under the concrete floor of the VIP podium where Kadyrov and other dignitaries were watching ceremonies marking the 59th anniversary of the defeat of the Nazis in World War II.
A second land mine was found nearby.
Investigators were trying to identify people who worked on the three-month renovation of the stadium, which was completed just recently, according to the ITAR-Tass news agency.
Official estimates of the death toll varied.
The Grozny emergency medical center said 24 people were killed and 46 others were wounded.
However, Russian President Vladimir Putin's representative in the southern Russian district, Vladimir Yakovlev, said six people died in the blast and 53 others were wounded, the Interfax news agency reported.
The differing estimates could not immediately be explained.
Russian authorities have blamed Chechen rebels for many attacks since 2002, including a Feb. 6 suicide bombing on a Moscow subway that killed more than 40 people and wounded dozens.
Previous major attacks in Chechnya have been followed by massive operations to find the perpetrators, with troops and security forces sealing off whole neighborhoods and towns, conducting house-to-house searches and detaining scores of people.
Sunday's attack was expected to send waves of fear through the Connecticut-sized region of 1 million people. Kadyrov's security service, run by his younger son, Ramzan, has been accused of being behind civilian disappearances and extrajudicial killings. Both Kadyrovs denied the accusations.
"Justice will take the upper hand and retribution is inevitable," Putin said at the conclusion of Moscow's Victory Day parade on Red Square, ITAR-Tass reported.
Later in the day, meeting with Ramzan Kadyrov, Putin called the late Chechen president "a really heroic person."
"Akhmad Kadyrov left this life on May 9 ... undefeated," Putin said.
The explosion also reportedly killed Khusein Isayev, head of Chechnya's State Council, and Eli Isayev, the region's finance minister.
The Reuters news agency said its photographer Adlan Khasanov, 33, also was killed.
"He was a fine journalist working with dedication and great courage in often-dangerous conditions," Reuters editor-in-chief Geert Linnebank said in a statement.
A top Russian commander, Col.-Gen. Valery Baranov, was in critical condition, with one leg amputated, officials said. Russia's deputy interior minister, Col.-Gen. Mikhail Pankov, was named commander of troops in Chechnya, Interfax reported.
Chechen Prime Minister Sergei Abramov will become Chechnya's acting president, the Kremlin said.
Kozhemyaka, the Emergency Situations Ministry spokesman, said a second land mine was found near the VIP seats. An unnamed investigator said on NTV television that a bottle containing a plastic explosive was found in the stands, where it apparently was planted after the blast that killed Kadyrov.
Security was tight across Russia as the nation celebrated Victory Day, one of its most sacred holidays. In 2002, a bomb exploded during a Victory Day military parade in the Caspian Sea port of Kaspiisk, killing 43 people, including 12 children.
Last year, a police officer was killed and two more people were wounded when a bomb exploded near the Grozny stadium.
Russian troops have been fighting Chechen insurgents for much of the past decade, with the latest war beginning in September 1999.
Kadyrov, a barrel-chested, gravel-voiced Muslim imam, was a rebel commander during the 1994-96 war that ended with Russian forces withdrawing. However, he became disenchanted during the period of Chechnya's de facto independence, complaining of the growing influence of the Wahhabi sect of Islam in the republic.
He broke with Aslan Maskhadov, who had been elected Chechen president in 1997, and in 2000 the Kremlin appointed him the republic's top civilian administrator. He was elected president in an October vote widely criticized as fraudulent.