Chechen president escapes roadside bomb

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The Independent Online
CHECHNYA'S moderate President, Aslan Maskhadov, narrowly escaped with his life yesterday when a roadside bomb exploded within seconds of his motorcade speeding by.

The assassination attempt, the fourth he has survived, added to tension across the entire Caucasus after Friday's carnage at a bombed market in neighbouring North Ossetia.

The Itar-Tass news agency said four of the President's bodyguards were injured by yesterday's bomb, planted in a sewer and timed to go off when the Chechen leader passed on his way to his residence in Grozny. Shooting broke out after the blast, which blasted a 9-foot by 16-foot crater in the road and blew out windows in surrounding buildings.

As usual, some presidential aides saw the "hand of the Russian special services" in the attack. Caucasians routinely blame the successors to the KGB for trying to destabilise their region.

However, an official spokesman, Movlem Salamov, said "bandits" were trying to prevent a search for peace between President Maskhadov and Russian politicians. The Chechen leader, frustrated by Moscow's unwillingness to grant his region independence, has said he lacks confidence in Yevgeny Primakov, the Prime Minister, and asked to see President Boris Yeltsin.

Relations between Moscow and the breakaway Muslim region are more tense now than at any time since the 1994-96 war. The Russians are furious because Chechen warlords, beyond President Maskhadov's control, are holding hostage an interior ministry general.

Islamic radicals have abducted dozens of Russian civilians and several foreigners, and beheaded four telephone engineers from Britain and New Zealand. Only with difficulty is Moscow restraining itself from launching a war over the latest kidnapping this month; masked men drove on to Grozny airport and took General Gennady Shpigun off a plane for Moscow.

The Russians are now also wondering whether militant Chechens might be behind the market bombing in the North Ossetian capital of Vladikavkaz. Another possibility is that the bomb was planted to provoke ethnic tension between the Orthodox Christian Ossetians and the Muslim Ingush, relatives of the Chechens. In the Second World War, Stalin deported the Ingush and transferred a piece of their territory to North Ossetia, a decision that still rankles.

Yesterday was declared a day of mourning across Russia for more than 60 people who died in the market blast. Most were poor civilians who had been queuing for cheap vegetables. The Interior Minister, Sergei Stepashin, said he believed only religious fanatics could have carried out such a cruel attack.

Whatever the truth, peace has never been more fragile in the Caucasus, where those linking their future to Russia, albeit loosely, face Islamic fundamentalists wanting the region for Allah, and where the old trad- ition of blood revenge lives on.