Russia's strategy to tame violent separatist sentiment in the strife-torn republic of Chechnya lay in tatters yesterday after the region's Moscow-backed President was killed in a bomb attack that claimed up to 24 lives.
Akhmad Kadyrov, 52, regarded as a puppet and a traitor by Chechen separatists, was confirmed dead after a powerful explosion ripped through a packed sports stadium in Grozny, the Chechen capital, on Russia's most sacred and solemn national holiday.
The annual commemoration of the Soviet Union's victory over Nazi Germany in the Second World War was celebrated across the country and Mr Kadyrov and his senior lieutenants were reviewing a military parade in the Dinamo sports stadium when a bomb exploded directly under the VIP stand.
General Valery Baranov, Russia's top military man in Chechnya, was sitting near Mr Kadyrov at the time and was said to be fighting for his life last night after his leg was blown off - although some Russian media claimed he was already dead.
Reports of the fatalities varied wildly from four to 24, with up to 53 people reported seriously injured. The dead and wounded included children, pensioners, a Reuters photographer and various high-ranking members of Mr Kadyrov's administration. A second bomb was reported to have been detected minutes later and successfully defused. Russian television showed harrowing pictures of rescuers cradling a young boy, unconscious and bleeding, while Mr Kadyrov's corpse was seen being dragged away by men in uniform. His face was caked in blood.
Although previous separatist attacks have claimed more lives, none have been so audacious or claimed the scalp of such an important person. Authorities said the explosion appeared to have been caused by a landmine concealed in the stadium's concrete underpinning; renovation work had only finished the day before. Security units had swept the stadium for bombs but found nothing.
The Chechen separatist website, KavkazCenter.com, raised the possibility, however, that the attack may have been the work of a female suicide bomber or "black widow". The tone of its news report on the attack was triumphalist and it referred to the Russians as "occupiers".
The Russian Defence Ministry said Chechen separatists were to blame. Mr Kadyrov, it said, had survived countless assassination attempts but this time his enemies had got their man. Five people were reported to have been arrested after the attack.
Vladimir Putin, The Russian President, vowed vengeance and praised Mr Kadyrov as a civilising influence who departed life "unvanquished".
"There can be no doubt that retribution is unavoidable for those we are fighting," he told war veterans gathered in Moscow's Red Square. "It will be unavoidable for terrorists. [Kadyrov] was a real hero. He convincingly showed by all his actions that you can't equate an entire people with banditry and terrorism. For the past four years, he worthily and bravely carried out his duty before his own people."
The assassination of Mr Kadyrov rips a gaping hole in Russia's policy on Chechnya. He has no obvious replacement and the power vacuum could embolden the separatists and spark even fiercer resistance.
Appointed in 2000 as the republic's top civilian administrator, Mr Kadyrov's position was cemented in elections last year which were regarded with deep suspicion by outside observers. Moscow considered him a stabilising moderate influence, however, and thought he commanded at least some respect among large sections of the Chechen population.
A fighter in the first 1994-96 Chechen war against the Russians he used to be a senior Muslim cleric and once called for a jihad or holy war against the invaders. But he had a dramatic change of heart in 1999 and became a Putin ally.
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