Putin issues warning on Chechen backlash

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The Independent Online

President Vladimir Putin sought to prevent anti-Chechen hysteria taking hold in Russia yesterday after the bomb blast in central Moscow that killed seven people. At the same time he vowed that Russia would see through its military campaign in Chechnya.

President Vladimir Putin sought to prevent anti-Chechen hysteria taking hold in Russia yesterday after the bomb blast in central Moscow that killed seven people. At the same time he vowed that Russia would see through its military campaign in Chechnya.

Even as he spoke, two Caucasian men were arrested on suspicion of involvement in Tuesday's terrorist attack in a crowded underpass beneath Pushkin Square. However the Russian prosecutor said last night that the two were not "directly linked" to the bombing.

The Federal Security Service (FSB) also said it had found nine pounds of TNT and seven detonators in a locker at Kazan railway station, Moscow, and that police were investigating a possible link to the bombing.

President Putin, personally supervising the investigation into the blast, began his day by meeting Nikolai Patrushev, head of the FSB, who had interrupted his holiday at a resort on the Black Sea to return to Moscow.

The Russian leader said it was wrong "to look for an ethnic connection, a Chechen connection in this or any other crime. It is wrong to brand a whole people. Criminals and terrorists have neither nationality nor religion." But he also said the only way to deal with terrorists was to give them an "adequate reply" and he assured Russians that federal forces would "complete what they have begun in Chechnya".

Meanwhile, the FSB announced that two men, one a Chechen and one a member of the tiny Avar community of Dagestan, were being questioned. Alexander Buksman, the prosecutor for Moscow's central district, said last night that they were detained for other reasons than the bombing. They were caught carrying "Wahabbite" or Islamic fundamentalist literature and drugs, for which they would face separate charges.

Police issued a photofit picture of a third wanted man, a gaunt, dark-haired Caucasian, and began a search for a blue Lada car that may have been used by the bombers.

Witnesses to the explosion, which ripped through the underpass as Muscovites were shopping at the end of the working day, said they saw two men approach a kiosk and attempt to buy some small items with US dollars. When the assistant insisted on roubles, they walked off to change their currency, leaving a plastic bag behind them. Seconds later, the bomb went off.

Seven people were killed and some 100 shoppers were injured, suffering mainly burns and cuts from the flying glass of the shattered kiosks. Police thought one of the bombers might be among the dead.

The atmosphere in Moscow was still highly emotional 24 hours after the blast. Muscovites queued from early morning at the Sklifosovsky Hospital to donate blood, although doctors said they had enough now and the real need would arise over the coming weeks.

Increased security in Moscow and other cities brought back memories of horrific apartment block bombings last September that softened up Russian public opinion for a new war in Chechnya. In the city of Saratov on the river Volga, three Chechens were arrested on suspicion of planning a terrorist attack. Police stopped all vehicles coming into Moscow, and Muscovites revived the neighbourhood watch system used after last year's bombings.

But Valery Shantsev, deputy mayor of Moscow, said there would be no re-registration of "guests" in the capital, as happened last year. That prompted fruit traders and construction workers from Caucasian communities - not only Chechens but also Azeris, Armenians and Georgians - to complain of racism. Instead, municipal authorities were planning to improve safety by removing the flimsy kiosks from underpasses.

Although most Russians will blame the Chechens, the Chechen President, Aslan Maskhadov, who is believed to be hiding in the Caucasus mountains, denied his guerrillas were involved.

Critics of the Kremlin may wonder whether, with the war in Chechnya losing its popular appeal, the Russian secret services needed a pretext to galvanise opinion in the way that last year's attacks helped to propel Mr Putin into the presidency. But Mr Putin, who will celebrate his first 100 days in office next week, hardly needs such a lift now.

* The influential Russian tycoon Boris Berezovsky announced plans yesterday to create an opposition movement to combat Mr Putin's "nascent authoritarianism". Mr Berezovsky is the most prominent of Russia's "oligarchs", who accumulated vast wealth and influence in the 1990s.

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