At least 41 people died and 200 or more were wounded today when a military-style truck rammed a steel barrier outside a Russian government compound in northern Chechnya and blew up. It was the second suicide attack in the lawless republic in five months.
The explosion destroyed three government buildings, including local police and security headquarters, and wiped out a half-dozen houses or apartment buildings on the central street in Znamenskoye, a town that has long been a showcase of Russia's efforts to pacify the war-battered republic.
The bombing underscored the continuing violence that continues to torment Chechnya despite the Russian government's repeated claims that life there is returning to normal.
"The truck was driving very fast," one woman told Russia's NTV television from her hospital cot. "I thought it was headed toward the barrier. I had only enough time to shout for my brother. At that moment the neighbor's fence fell on me." The blast left a crater 30 feet wide and 12 feet deep and blew out windows nearly two miles away.
Russian media reported that two employees of the Federal Security Service were among the dead. According to officials, most of the victims were Chechens caught in their houses or apartments or in the street near the government complex. Six of the dead were children.
Rescue workers used excavating equipment while residents dug with shovels and bare hands, hoping to reach survivors under mounds of debris as high as two-story buildings. Russian media reported that groans and knocking could be heard coming from under the rubble. At least two people were dragged out alive, according to one Russian television report.
"I don't know where to search," said one man, who was digging in the debris for his sister-in-law and two nieces. "They were right here, right in this house."
The injured were rushed to hospitals in the Chechen capital of Grozny and in another nearby city. Russian television reports estimated the number at anywhere from 197 to nearly 270.
Russian officials quickly blamed the attack on Chechen militants and singled out Arabs who they said have gained significant influence in the movement. But they acknowledged they had no real evidence yet as to who was responsible.
In recent months, Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, has portrayed Chechnya as a region of growing stability, eager to reconcile with Russia after two wars in less than a decade. With parliamentary elections scheduled for December and presidential elections less than a year away, political analysts say it is important to Putin to show that the loss of 4,500 Russian soldiers in Chechnya over the past 31/2 years has had some purpose.
"Such terrorist acts and everything that is connected with them are aimed at one thing -- to halt the process of settlement of the situation in Chechnya, to halt the process of political settlement," Putin said today. "We cannot allow these things to happen, and we won't."
Five months ago, a similar suicide bombing killed 80 people at the government headquarters in Grozny. Officials blamed that attack on Arab terrorists and portrayed it as an isolated incident, almost impossible to prevent.
In March, Chechen voters overwhelmingly approved a new constitution that declares the republic an integral part of Russia. Putin hailed that result as a major step toward broad autonomy, amnesty for many Chechen rebels and the partial withdrawal of 80,000 Russian troops who have operated in Chechnya since late 1999.
Aslambek Aslakhanov, Chechnya's representative in the Russian parliament, said in a telephone interview that the promises of the referendum remain unfulfilled. "The government says it is doing something, but for some reason I am not noticing what it is doing," he said. "These terrorist acts . . . will be going on as long as the problem of those who have arms is not solved."
"The authorities are demonstrating their total helplessness" in their entire Chechen policy, said Ivan Rybkin, who served as the Kremlin's representative in the republic in 1996 and now is a harsh critic of Putin's Chechnya policy.
For much of the past decade, Znamenskoye seemed almost uniquely exempt from the conflict that raged in surrounding regions. But the town's sense of security vanished in September when the district administrator was gunned down by snipers, one of a series of assassinations of pro-Moscow Chechens.