Search for survivors after Chechnya bomb

Rescuers, labouring in the pre-dawn cold on Saturday, searched the rubble for survivors of a suicide bombing in Chechnya that killed at least 46 people and injured dozens more.

The blasts wrecked much of the headquarters of the Kremlin-backed administration in Grozny, and dealt a severe blow to the Russian government’s efforts to portray the republic as returning to normal after three years of war between separatist guerrillas and Russian troops.

The attackers stormed security gates in a pair of trucks and roared up to the building, detonating bombs at about 2:30pm on Friday, officials said.

Forty-six people were confirmed dead Friday and 70 others wounded, said Viktor Shkareda, deputy head of the Emergency Situations Ministry in southern Russia.

Some 200 rescuers were scrabbling through the heaps of concrete and shattered glass on Saturday in search of survivors. Some reported finding only body parts, and the death toll was expected to rise.

It was unclear how many people were in the building. The bomb went off just after the traditional lunch break, said one official, Imran Vagapov.
About 200 people usually work in the building, officials said.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but Russian officials variously blamed Chechnya’s rebel president Aslan Maskhadov and warlord Shamil Basayev.

Basayev claimed involvement in the October raid on a Moscow theatre in which 41 attackers and 129 hostages died. Maskhadov broke ranks with the warlord last month following the claim. On Friday, senior Maskhadov aide Akhmed Zakayev denied Maskhadov’s government was involved. “Responsibility for the escalation of violence in Chechnya, including this act of terror, lies wholly with the Russian side,” Zakayev said in a statement

issued from London.

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

The head of the Moscow-backed Chechen administration, Akhmad Kadyrov, has offices in the building but was in Moscow at the time.

Kadyrov, although he has become increasingly critical of the Russian military campaign in Chechnya, is regarded as a turncoat by rebels, as are other Chechens who work with Russian authorities.

Kadyrov called for an investigation. “How could the terrorists have managed to break through three fences around the government building? The guards’ actions must be investigated,” Interfax quoted him as saying.

In Paris, meanwhile, the French Interior Ministry said a cell of suspected Islamic militants arrested this week was planning attacks against Russian interests in Chechnya and France, including the Russian Embassy in Paris. Eight suspects were arrested this week.

Initial reports said the vehicles that blew up the Grozny headquarters on Friday 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 a half-ton of TNT.

The blasts left a 6-metre-wide crater, destroyed one of the building’s wings and left much of the main structure a shell, the emergency ministry said.

Television footage showed stunned and bleeding people stumbling out of the rubble. Others were dragged out by their hands and feet as bloodied soldiers tried to establish order.

Russian President Vladimir Putin vowed in a statement that “No sort of terrorist crimes will break the will and aspirations of the people of Chechnya for a peaceful life.”

After driving rebels out of much of Chechnya in a ground campaign that began in September 1999, Russian forces have been unable to wipe them out in Grozny and in the rugged mountainous regions to the south of the capital.

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.

Under the subsequent de-facto independence, Chechnya was

virtually lawless, notorious for widespread kidnappings, and Islamic fundamentalists established footholds.

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

Russian troops have had nominal control of Grozny since early 2000 but the city remains largely in ruins from intense Russian air and artillery attacks.

Rebels infiltrate the city and wage daily hit-and-run attacks on Russian forces using remote-controlled explosives.

This fall, rebels 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 largest recent attack in Grozny was in October, when rebels blew up a Grozny police precinct house, killing at least 25 people. Militants also set off an explosion in a passenger bus in September, killing 19 people, mostly civilians. - Sapa-AP

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