Chechen rebels launch suicide bomb attacks on Russian troops

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The Independent Online

Suicide bombers driving trucks packed with explosives killed at least 49 people, mostly Russian soldiers, in five coordinated attacks early on Monday in Russian-controlled towns in Chechnya.

Suicide bombers driving trucks packed with explosives killed at least 49 people, mostly Russian soldiers, in five coordinated attacks early on Monday in Russian-controlled towns in Chechnya.

In the worst incident, in the town of Argun, nine miles from Grozny, the Chechen capital, the driver of a truck containing up to five tons of explosive blew himself up outside a hostel in which Russian servicemen were sleeping. Twenty-five soldiers were killed and another 81 wounded.

"I suddenly saw a huge truck coming at high speed" said Vasara Vesitaya, who worked in the cafeteria beside the dormitory, but had left for home three minutes before the blast. "It crashed through the barrier and then something horrible began. The glass from windows in surrounding houses shattered, the glass shook."

The explosion left a deep crater and brought down the second floor of the two-storey building. Shaken Russian soldiers were yesterday picking their way through the ruins and taking away bodies wrapped in black plastic.

Russian losses may be higher than officially stated, with the Itar-Tass agency citing Interior Ministry officials as saying that 25 military police were still missing, buried under the rubble. A Kremlin spokesman said: "I'm afraid to say I think the death toll could rise in Argun."

The suicide attacks are among the worst setbacks suffered by Russian forces since they invaded Chechnya in October. The scale of the casualties will make it impossible for the Kremlin to maintain that its troops have won the war apart from occasional guerrilla attacks in the mountains.

Sergei Yastrzhembsky, the official Russian spokesman on Chechnya, said: "The terrorists' targets in all cases were the military commandant's buildings and places where Russian troops were located, vitally important buildings on Chechnya's territory."

The rebels had not hitherto used suicide trucks, a tactic employed with great success by Islamic guerrillas in Lebanon in the Eighties. In Beirut in October 1983 two truck-driving suicide bombers killed 241 US Marines and 59 French troops on the same day.

Mr Yastrzhembsky said of the attacks in Chechnya: "All the attacks had one and the same signature, one and the same plan, using heavy Ural trucks and kamikaze drivers."

Not all the of suicide bombers reached their target. A truck approaching Gudermes, Chechnya's second largest city, was stopped on a bridge and the driver blew himself up, killing a Chechen policeman.

Russian officials blame the heavy losses in Argun on the failure of local commanders to protect the building in which troops were sleeping. It apparently had no perimeter wall to prevent a suicide bomber getting close to his target.

Rebel Chechen leaders said they had launched the attacks in reply to Russian claims that organised resistance had ended. A videotaped speech by the elected Chechen President, Aslan Maskhadov, shows him saying the bombers "are not Arabs or mercenaries. These are desperate Chechens who are paying their enemies back for the death of their nearest and dearest."

Movladi Udugov, a spokesman for the Chechen rebels, said: "This is the start of the first phase of our large-scale operation operation to free Chechen villages and destroy the Russian aggressors". He claimed that the Chechens had two battalions of suicide bombers totalling 500 men ready to sacrifice themselves.

The most serious political consequence of the suicide attacks for the Kremlin is that they have propelled the war in Chechnya back into the headlines. President Vladimir Putin owes his meteoric rise from obscurity over the last year to his reputation as the man who launched the war but ever since he was elected Russian leader in March he has given the impression that the war is won. Russia has been withdrawing some of its military units.

In fact Russian troops have never been able to secure full control over the mountains of southern Chechnya, where several thousand guerrillas held out during the winter months after the fall of Grozny.

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