Chechens blamed as bomb kills 31 Russians

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The Independent Online

A bomb exploded beside a road in a southern Russian town not far from Chechnya yesterday, killing 31 people and injuring 150 taking part in a parade to mark victory over the Nazis in the Second World War.

The explosion happened as a military brass band, surrounded by children, was leaving the central square in the town of Kaspiisk on the Caspian Sea. Pictures from the scene later showed a smashed drum and horns lying on the blood-smeared road.

Magomad Akhmedov, a 35-year-old teacher, said: "When I got there, I saw a mound of bodies, people in panic. Someone began giving first-aid, some started to bind people's wounds and stop the blood with whatever they could find. The Emergency Services Ministry said that the dead included 19 servicemen and 12 children."

President Vladimir Putin, addressing a reception in the Kremlin to celebrate the 57th anniversary of German surrender in 1945, described the attackers as "scum". He added: "We have the right to treat them as Nazis, whose sole aim was to spread death, sow fear and to murder."

The bomb was the worst atrocity against civilians in Russia, outside Chechnya, since a series of explosions in apartment buildings killed 300 people in September 1999, precipitating the second Russian invasion of Chechnya and a war that has left thousands dead.

There was no immdeiate claim of responsibility for the explosion in Kaspiisk, a town with a large Russian population in Dagestan, but the most likely perpetrators are Chechen separatists.

In the Chechen capital, Grozny, yesterday, rebels fired grenades from a launcher into the city's Dynamo stadium, where victory celebrations were taking place. Four policemen were wounded, one seriously.

The Kaspiisk bomb, a metal canister containing the equivalent of three to five kilos of TNT, was planted among some shrubs beside the pavement. Security sources believe it was placed there some time between 8am (5am BST), when police last checked the route, and 9.45am when it exploded. The bomb sprayed nuts, bolts and nails, cutting down the military band and children who were following them.

Wounded soldiers, their blood-drenched uniforms ripped by the explosion, were shown on Russia's NTV television lying on stretchers in hospital. "The scene is horrifying," said Ruslan Gusarev, an NTV correspondent.

"There are body parts everywhere and an overpowering smell of blood."

After a meeting his senior security officials in Moscow, Mr Putin promised that "in the shortest possible time, we will find, convict and punish the criminals". Past experience shows, however, that this is unlikely. In November 1996 a bomb exploded in a building in Kaspiisk housing the families of Russian border guards killing 68 people. The perpetrators were never discovered, but Chechen rebels were blamed by the authorities.

Although yesterday's blast will deepen the hatred of Russians towards the Chechens, the rebels are eager to show that the two-and-a-half-year war in Chechnya is not over despite Mr Putin's repeated claims that it is.

In a speech to the nation last month the Russian leader claimed that "the military phase of the Chechen counter-terrorist operation had already been completed".

Russian forces in Chechnya enjoyed a well-publicised success recently when they killed Khatab, a Saudi-born guerrilla leader, by sending him a letter impregnated with poison.

In Moscow the news of the bomb in Kaspiisk overshadowed the Victory Day celebrations which drew only small crowds, many people in the capital taking advantage of the warm weather to visit their dachas in the countryside.

Soon after the explosion detachments of police were sent into Metro stations to step up security, but the size of the capital's underground system makes it impossible to guard effectively.

Mr Putin's rise to popularity in the 1990s was partly the result of a promise to deal harshly and immediately with those who planted bombs in apartment buildings. Yesterday he pledged himself once again, in very similar words, to eradicate terrorists, but Russians may also note that there is no sign of the war in Chechnya ending.

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