Blast kills Chechen president at stadium

Posted in Terrorism | 10-May-04 | Author: Steven Myers| Source: The New York Times

MOSCOW - A bomb exploded Sunday in a stadium in Chechnya's capital, killing the republic's president and at least 13 others in a holiday celebration, officials in the region said. More than 50 people were reported wounded, among them the Russian military commander for the region.

Akhmad Kadyrov, a former rebel leader who was elected the republic's president last fall in a vote widely considered fraudulent, was the political figure entrusted by President Vladimir Putin of Russia to wind down nearly a decade of war in Chechnya. His death now plunges the Kremlin's strategy into ominous uncertainty.

The explosion, reportedly caused by a bomb planted inside a concrete pillar, occurred at 10:35 as Kadyrov and other Russian and Chechen leaders attended a parade and concert in Grozny commemorating the 59th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany.

The NTV network, having sent a crew to film what was expected to be a celebratory event, broadcast jarring images of the explosion and its panicked aftermath. As smoke rose over the stadium's grandstand, dazed and bloodied spectators, including children and elderly veterans wearing their war medals, stumbled over metal bleachers to escape.

The explosion, which came during a concert that followed a military parade, tore a gaping whole beneath the grandstand's central VIP section. Soldiers and police officers lifted Kadyrov from the wreckage, his body slumped, his face battered and bloodied. He was 52.

In televised remarks afterward, Putin called Kadyrov "a truly heroic man" who proved the difference between "bandits, terrorists and the whole people" - a distinction Putin strives to make between those in Chechnya who support Russia and those who continue to struggle for independence from it.

Putin announced that Sergei Abramov, the Kremlin-appointed prime minister of Chechnya, would take over as acting president, as called for in the republic's new constitution, until new elections are held sometime before September.

There were no immediate claims of responsibility, but given the placement of the bomb, the attack was clearly meant to kill Kadyrov and other Russian and Chechen leaders. Khussein Isayev, chairman of the republic's state council under Kadyrov, was also killed in the blast, as was a journalist for Reuters, Adlan Khasanov. Colonel General Valeri Baranov, commander of the Russian military in the Northern Caucasus since late 2002, was gravely wounded. By Sunday evening, he had undergone surgery at the main Russian military base outside Grozny and was reported to be in serious condition.

There were conflicting reports of the death toll. Some reports said as many as 32 died, though officials reached by telephone said that only 14 deaths, including Kadyrov's, had been confirmed by Sunday evening.

Gunfire erupted in and around the stadium after the blast, apparently in panic. There were no reports that security forces clashed with anyone, though a spokesman for Chechnya's interior ministry announced Sunday evening that five people had been detained and were being questioned as suspects in the bombing.

The bombing was the worst attack in Russia since a suicide bomber in Moscow's subway killed 40 people on Feb. 6; a previously unknown Chechen group later claimed responsibility for that bombing.

The attack Sunday underscored the simmering violence in Chechnya and the precarious state of the Kremlin's efforts to end the second Chechen war, which began in 1999. That effort included a referendum on a new constitution last March, followed by the presidential election last October, which Kadyrov won after the Kremlin orchestrated the removal of his most prominent challengers. Kadyrov has so dominated politics and power in Chechnya that it is unclear who else in the republic would have enough support from both Russians and Chechens to replace him.

Kadyrov, a bearded and stocky man, carefully balanced his support for Moscow with a fierce Chechen nationalism. He once served as the republic's chief mufti, or Islamic religious leader, and in the first Chechen war, from 1994 to 1996, he commanded a rebel force fighting for independence against Russia forces. But in the years after the Russians withdrew and Chechnya gained autonomy, if not outright independence, he broke with Aslan Maskhadov, the elected president of the republic until Russian troops invaded again in 1999 and ousted him. When war erupted anew, Kadyrov sided with the Russians, and Putin appointed him the administrative head of the pro-Moscow government in Chechnya, a position he held until he was elected president in October. While suspicion fell on separatists who refuse to recognize Russian rule and still clash with Russian forces almost daily, Kadyrov earned the enmity of others in Chechnya who bristled under his strong hand.