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Suicide Truck Bomb Leaves at Least 41 Dead in Chechnya

Separatist guerrillas suspected. Attack raises fears about Russian peace plan for republic.

May 13, 2003|David Holley and Mayerbek Nunayev | Special to The Times

ZNAMENSKOYE, Russia — A truck-bomb attack on a government compound in this town in northern Chechnya killed at least 41 people Monday and raised fresh doubts about a Kremlin peace plan for the war-torn republic.

Presumed to be the work of separatist guerrillas, the suicide bombing was the most deadly such attack since a March referendum in Chechnya approved a new constitution that paved the way for limited autonomy and new elections.

Russian President Vladimir V. Putin swiftly declared that the attack would fail to derail efforts to build a stable new relationship between Chechnya and Moscow.

"Such actions are intended to stop the process of a political settlement of the situation in Chechnya," Putin said. "We cannot and will not allow anything of the kind."

The truck, which authorities said was packed with the equivalent of more than one ton of TNT, blew up near a concrete wall around a government compound containing the local offices of the Federal Security Service, or FSB, the Russian successor to the Soviet-era KGB. The FSB has the leading role, supported by the army and police, in what is officially described as anti-terrorist operations in predominantly Muslim Chechnya.

"It was a horrible sight," said Akhmed Tsukayev, a guard at the compound. "People who were close to the truck when it exploded were blown into pieces. I helped collect bodies. We put them into blankets and sheets."

Rescue workers struggled to free victims trapped in the rubble as women wearing head scarves watched and wept. At least 111 people were reported hospitalized, including 53 in critical condition, and 158 others were treated at the scene. Among the dead were at least six children, authorities said.

Witnesses said they saw a man and a woman dressed in civilian clothes in the cabin of the khaki-colored truck shortly before it exploded. Some reports placed a third person in the truck. The bombers were presumed dead, authorities said.

The blast left a crater about 15 feet deep and 60 feet across. The bomb blew away the top floor of the FSB building; it also destroyed a district police headquarters and local administrative building. About a dozen cars were battered and burned, and at least six residential buildings were destroyed or badly damaged.

Kata Umarov, 51, a state farm worker, said the blast was so strong that a piece of the truck's rear axle flew about 600 yards and smashed the roof of his chicken coop.

"My neighbors, three men and three women, who were working repairing a house near the explosion, were all killed," Umarov said. "I am so sorry that so many innocent people died. When will it all end?"

A police officer registering bodies in the town's hospital morgue said 41 people had been killed. Later reports put the toll at 43. The town is about 45 miles northwest of Grozny, the Chechen capital.

Although Chechens exercised self-rule in their Caucasus republic after defeating Russian troops in a 1994-96 war, Russian forces returned in 1999 and have fought guerrillas since. Aslan Maskhadov, who won Chechnya's presidency in 1997, is now a key rebel leader.

Putin responded to the attack by ordering that faster action be taken to draw up an agreement on the division of power between Chechen and federal authorities. He set a deadline of Oct. 1 for a working group to submit proposals.

But skeptics question whether any plan can bring peace. Some argue that the fighting can be ended only through negotiations with rebel leaders. Others say that there is no workable solution and that the conflict will simply drag on.

"It is clear to me that the Kremlin doesn't have a clue how to get out of this situation," said Vyacheslav Izmailov, a military correspondent with the Moscow newspaper Novaya Gazeta, who was an army officer in Chechnya during the mid-1990s war. "It is useless to have negotiations with leaders of armed gangs. I know most of them. Negotiations with them are a waste of time."

Izmailov also sharply disputed the government's claim that the situation in Chechnya is improving. "People put their last hopes into the March referendum," he said. "But nothing really changed after that. The Kremlin has no right to say that the war is over and no right to claim a victory in that war."

The head of the pro-Moscow Chechen government, Akhmad Kadyrov, said he suspected that Maskhadov -- generally seen as one of the less extreme rebel leaders -- might have been behind Monday's attack.

But Salambek Maigov, a spokesman for Maskhadov, denied that charge.

"Maskhadov has not once said he supports terrorism," Maigov told Echo of Moscow radio. "Such methods are not acceptable for the Chechen resistance."

Malika Khatsiyeva, 36, a nurse at the hospital in Znamenskoye, expressed despair that peace looks as far away as ever.

"It is becoming more and more dangerous here," she said. "I had so much hope for the referendum. I thought it would end the war. But I was wrong."

Times staff writer Holley reported from Moscow and special correspondent Nunayev from Znamenskoye. Times staff writer Sergei L. Loiko in Moscow contributed to this report.

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