Moscow, Dec. 27 (Reuters): Suspected Chechen rebel suicide bombers rammed vehicles packed with a tonne of explosives into the local government headquarters in Grozny today, gutting the building and killing at least 40 people.
Two huge explosions went off within a minute of each other, devastating a four-storey government building, rows of official vehicles and spewing debris over a wide area.
In October, Chechen rebels seized some 800 hostages in a Moscow theatre. Forty-one rebels and 129 hostages were killed when Russian special forces stormed the theatre. The rebels are fighting for independence for the mostly Muslim southern province of Chechnya and want Russian troops there to withdraw.
Television pictures in Grozny showed bodies scattered on the frozen ground as small groups of dazed staff and security personnel, blood pouring from head wounds, staggered towards medical crews.
Chechnya’s acting prosecutor Vladimir Kravchenko said the death toll had risen from 32 to “about 40”, while Kremlin officials said around 80 were injured. “The power of the explosion was about one tonne, the explosion crater is about six metres,” Kravchenko said by telephone from Grozny.
There were no immediate claims of responsibility for the bombing but officials blamed it on elected Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov, ousted when Russian troops returned to Chechnya in October 1999 after a three-year break.
The Grozny attack appeared aimed at shattering Russian claims that life in Chechnya is returning to normal. President Vladimir Putin plans a March referendum on a political settlement that would keep Chechnya within Russia. But the rebels appear determined to fight on.
In France, the interior ministry said today that Islamic militants arrested in the Paris suburbs over the last two weeks planned to attack Russian targets and particularly wanted to hit Moscow’s embassy in Paris.
Kravchenko said the attack happened around 14.15 local (1115 GMT) when two vehicles packed with explosives — a truck and an off-road vehicle — rammed protective barriers around the building, one of the most heavily guarded in the city.
Sobbing staff staggered to safety as smoke rose from the administrative centre, one of few buildings rebuilt after Russian troops seized the capital from rebels in 2000.
The blast shook buildings and blew out windows for miles around, a television journalist called Raisa said from Grozny. “There are a lot of casualties, they’re endless,” she said. “There are very many wounded, hundreds I think, they are still trying to extract them. People are (trapped) under slabs.”
As night fell and temperatures plunged further below zero centigrade rescuers worked on the ruined government headquarters in the glow of headlights from emergency vehicles.
Sergei Zaitsev, a spokesman for Russia’s main Khankala military base just outside Grozny, said that there were normally 150-200 people in the building at any one time. Stanislav Ilyasov, the Russian government minister with responsibility for Chechnya, visited the scene shortly after the blasts.
But the head of the pro-Russian administration in Chechnya, Akhmad Kadyrov, was in Moscow at the time of the attack, which Russian news agencies said had been carried out by suicide bombers. More than 30 people died in the last such attack in July 2000, when a Russian police building was targeted.
Putin has rejected European calls for peace talks with Maskhadov. The Kremlin chief says Maskhadov is either complicit with rebels staging the increasingly bold attacks or incapable of preventing them, and thus irrelevant.
Instead he has tried to impose his own political process on the province through “Chechenisation” — appointing ethnic Chechens like Kadyrov to run a pro-Moscow Chechen government.
It has failed to win widespread support among ordinary Chechens, who distrust leaders loyal to Russia. But Russia’s elections chief signalled the latest bloody attack was unlik-ely to force a change of heart in Moscow.