Putin's government dealt blow by recent suicide bombings

Saturday, December 28, 2002

MOSCOW -- Suicide bombers in the capital of the rebellious province of Chechnya drove through Russian guard cordons and set off two explosions that shattered the headquarters of the Kremlin-backed administration and killed at least 46 people.

The blasts in Grozny dealt a severe blow to President Vladimir Putin's efforts to convince his people and the world that the southern republic is returning to normal after more than three years of war.

The government has tried to reinforce its claim by pressuring refugees to go home and shepherding foreign journalists to Grozny on carefully controlled tours to examine reconstruction projects.

At least 46 people were confirmed dead in the blast and 70 wounded, said Viktor Shkareda, deputy head of the Emergency Situations Ministry in southern Russia. Rescuers were finding fragments of other bodies as they scrabbled through the heaps of broken concrete and shattered glass.

The ministry said many of the wounded would be sent to other republics for treatment because the hospitals in war-ravaged Grozny could not handle the catastrophe.

Among the seriously wounded were Chechen Security Council chief Rudnik Dudayev and Zina Batyzheva, a deputy Chechen prime minister, the Interfax news agency reported.

Full of employees

The explosions hit about 2:30 p.m., just after a lunch break. Imran Vagapov, Chechnya's main inspector, said the government headquarters was full of employees and visitors. About 200 people usually work in the building, officials said.

Television footage showed stunned and bleeding people stumbling out of the rubble. Others were dragged out by their hands and feet, while bloodied soldiers tried to establish order. About 200 rescuers worked into the frigid night to search for survivors.

The blasts left a 20-foot-wide crater, destroyed one of the building's wings and left much of the main structure a shell, the emergency ministry said.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack, but Russian officials variously blamed Chechnya's rebel president Aslan Maskhadov or warlord Shamil Basayev.

Maskhadov broke ranks with Basayev last month after the latter claimed involvement in the October raid by Chechen gunmen on a Moscow theater, in which 41 rebels and 129 hostages died.

A Maskhadov aide, Akhmed Zakayev, issued a statement from London denying Maskhadov was involved. "Responsibility for the escalation of violence in Chechnya, including this act of terror, lies wholly with the Russian side," Zakayev said.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Philip T. Reeker said the United States "strongly condemns this act of terror" and called on the Chechen leadership "to cut their ties to terrorist leaders."

Putin claims Russia is fighting international terrorism -- not an independence movement -- in Chechnya.

Intelligence officials say the al-Qaida terror network has camps in Chechnya. France recently arrested eight suspected Islamic militants outside Paris as part of an investigation into networks that allegedly operate in France and filter extremists into Chechnya.

One of the suspects told police that group was planning attacks against Russian interests in Chechnya as well as in France, including the Russian Embassy in Paris, the French Interior Ministry said Friday.

Russian troops have had nominal control of Grozny since early 2000, but rebels infiltrate the city and attack Russian forces there almost daily. Grozny is largely in ruins from intense Russian air and artillery attacks.

The largest recent attack in Grozny was in October, when rebels blew up a police precinct house, killing at least 25 people. Militants also detonated a passenger bus in September, killing 19 people, mostly civilians.

Rebels also have shot down several military helicopters with shoulder-fired missiles near the main Russian base on the outskirts of Grozny. On Wednesday, gunmen shot and killed the head of a pro-Kremlin party in the city.

The head of the Moscow-backed Chechen administration, Akhmad Kadyrov, has offices in the building but was in Moscow at the time of the blast. Though he has become increasingly critical of the Russian military campaign in Chechnya, Kadyrov is regarded as a turncoat by rebels, as are other Chechens who work with Russian authorities.

Initial reports said the vehicles that blew up were a Kamaz heavy truck and a military-style UAZ light truck. The emergency ministry said the blasts' combined force was the equivalent of about half a ton of TNT.

Kadyrov told Interfax that one of the trucks had broken through three security cordons surrounding the government headquarters, and he called for an investigation of the security guards.

"How could the terrorists have managed to break through three fences around the government building? The guards' actions must be investigated," Kadyrov was quoted as saying.

Soldiers sealed off the city and will keep it closed until at least Sunday, the emergency ministry said.

Russian forces pushed rebels from much of Chechnya in a ground campaign that began in September 1999, but have been unable to wipe them out in Grozny and the rugged mountainous regions to the south of the capital. Still, the Russian government has insisted that Chechnya is returning to normal, and that the military campaign there is nearly complete.

Russian forces and Chechen rebels fought to a standstill in a 20-month war in 1994-96, after which the Russians withdrew and Maskhadov, a one-time rebel leader, became president. During subsequent de-facto independence, Chechnya was virtually lawless, and became notorious for widespread kidnappings.

Russian forces swept in again in 1999 after Chechen-based rebels raided neighboring Dagestan and after about 300 people died in apartment bombings that officials blamed on the insurgents.

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