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Suspects named as Znamenskoye death toll rises

Reuters photo

: Artyom Vernidoub  Reuters photo

Less than 24 hours after a truck laden with explosives blew up near a government building in the Chechen town of Znamenskoye leaving over 50 dead, the federal authorities began reporting initial investigation results. Top prosecutor for the Northern Caucasus Sergei Fridinsky announced that a list of potential suspects has been compiled and that Shamil Basayev was not on it. ''But there is a certain link,'' the prosecutor said. Meanwhile, the death toll in the bloodiest terror attack this year has reached 54.

By dawn republican rescue teams had finished sorting through the rubble of the houses destroyed by the powerful blast on Monday morning. 23 people were pulled out from the rubble alive, but most of those who were buried alive could not be saved. Around midnight rescuers recovered the body of a child, and by 0400 a dead woman was retrieved from the rubble.

By Tuesday morning the search and rescue operation was completed. According to the head of the Nadterechny district administration, Sultan Akhmetkhanov, the official death toll now stands at 54. 199 people were injured, 57 of them are in a critical condition.

The blast left a crater 14 metres in diameter. Several neighbouring houses were either completely destroyed or seriously damaged by the blast. The buildings of the local FSB directorate and the district administration were ripped down. Most of those who suffered in the blast are civilians: claimants who were at the district administration on Monday morning to seek assistance from the authorities, residents of neighbouring houses and street vendors.

According to investigators, the truck driven by suicide bombers exploded within 30 metres of the FSB building. If they had reached their goal and rammed the building, the consequences could have been similar to those of an earlier attack when a Kamaz truck blew up in the immediate proximity of the government compound in Grozny late last year, killing over 80 pro-Moscow officials and policemen. Those killed in the Znamenskoye blast on Monday were mostly ordinary residents of the village situated in the district, which has traditionally been considered one of the most peaceful and pro-Russian areas of the volatile republic.

It has been established that, like in the Grozny blast in December, one of the suicide bombers in the truck on Monday was a woman. Deputy prosecutor general Sergei Fridinsky told journalists that there had been two suicide bombers in the truck. Witnesses claim there were three in the vehicle, including 2 women, although since very little was left of them, those reports are difficult to verify.

In December the bombers were a Chechen family, a father and his two teenage children. The man was behind the wheel of the Kamaz truck with his 15-year-old daughter sitting at his side. His 17-year-old boy was driving the other vehicle. Chechen rebels said in a statement posted on their website that the three chose to become martyrs to avenge the mother and the eldest son of their family, allegedly killed in bombings. In the same statement Shamil Basayev claimed responsibility for the attack and to prove his involvement, Basayev also published a series of photos taken by a person who had clearly been informed of the Grozny attack in advance and shot the building through a long distance lens before, during and after the blast.

Nonetheless, the prosecutors refused to acknowledge Basayevs involvement until March 19 when Fridinsky eventually agreed, saying that evidence gathered during investigation proved that it was indeed Basayev that had masterminded the attack.

On Monday Fridinsky, in effect, ruled out Basayevs involvement, claiming that the blasts in Grozny and in Znamenskoye were organized by different people, which implies that Basayev has nothing to do with the latest suicide attack.

Judging by Fridinskys explanations, by Monday evening the prosecutors office had compiled a list of persons suspected of being involved in the blast. When asked if the Znamenskoye blast was masterminded by the same people who blew up the government compound in Grozny, Fridinsky said: ''No, these are not the same people, but there is a certain link between them.''

Earlier, the head of the pro-Moscow administration of Chechnya Akhmad Kadyrov admitted he could not yet say who had masterminded the attack Maskhadov or Basayev. Later in the day Kadyrovs press-service released a statement in which the top republican official placed the entire blame for the tragedy with Maskhadov. At the same time, the press-service added: ''Other ringleaders of bandit groups, who make profits out of peoples woes, are involved in those events, too.''

The Federation Council member representing Chechnya Akhmar Zavgayev, a native of the Nadterechny district and whose brother Akhmed Zavgayev headed the local administration until he was shot dead by the rebels last year, also blames Maskhadov for Mondays attack. Neither of the officials seems to possess any sufficient evidence substantiating their claims, although it appears that nobody needs it anyway.

Maskhadovs aide, speaking live on Ekho Mosvy radio station on Monday, stood by his president, denying the separatist leaders alleged involvement. Furthermore, the spokesman said, the Maskhadov party considers such methods of struggle unacceptable and offers its condolences to the Znamesnkoye residents who lost their kin and loved ones in the blast.

Akhmad Kadyrov declared a three-day period of mourning for the victims of the terrorist act. Television and radio stations have been asked to take all entertainment programmes off air. Local authorities have also been asked to cancel entertainment programmes scheduled for the next three days.

13 16:16


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