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President of Chechnya escapes serious injury from bomb blast.

The leader of Russia's breakaway Chechnya region escaped with slight injuries yesterday after a car bomb exploded near his motorcade.

President Aslan Maskhadov, who commanded Chechen guerrilla forces in a 21-month war against Russian troops, appeared in public soon after the attack to deny he was seriously hurt. There were no visible signs of injury and he looked healthy.

"I am alive and well," Mr Maskhadov told reporters at his residence in the Chechen capital, Grozny. "My political course will not change at all."

At least one person was reported killed after the bomb exploded as the motorcade drove passed.

A Reuters correspondent who arrived after the blast saw a crater three feet across and charred pieces of a wrecked car scattered along the dirt road nearby.

Mr Maskhadov said the latest attempt on his life was the work of "foreign special forces" who were "acting from afar with the hand of local provocateurs".

He did not say who the special forces were, although he said Russia had tried to kill him in the past.

Chechen Foreign Minister Mr Movladi Udugov said the attack was part of a drive to destabilise Chechnya, which he said would fail.

"The foreign special services are wasting their taxpayers' money," Itar- Tass news agency quoted him as saying.

Russia has always dismissed Chechen suggestions in the past that it has been trying to foment instability in the breakaway republic.

Mr Vladimir Zorin, head of the nationalities committee in Moscow's State Duma lower house of parliament, said Russia lacked the capability to carry out such an attack. Chechen authorities have said that foreigners are funding Islamic paramilitaries within the republic.

However, Mr Maskhadov also has enemies within Chechnya. He has moved to crack down on armed criminal groups responsible for a spate of hostage- takings and has political opponents who say they want a tougher line in relations with Moscow, or a stronger Islamic tone to the republic's government.

A Chechen security official said that Mr Maskhadov sustained a minor light leg injury but a driver and a bodyguard were killed in the attack. Mr Maskhadov mentioned only one bodyguard who was killed, but said four people were injured.

"Maskhadov received a light leg wound as a result of a bomb blast," said Mr Vakhit Ozdamirov, a national security service officer on the spot at the time of the blast, around 10am (local time) in the Staropromyslovsky district.

"He spent about 25 minutes in the hospital receiving treatment and then was taken out of there," said Mr Ozdamirov.

Chechnya remains tense almost two years after the 1994-96 war over its independence drive ended in a peace agreement and a humiliating withdrawal of Russian troops.

Chechnya says it is independent, but Moscow says the region is still part of Russia, although it is unable to enforce its will and laws there.

Last week Chechen security forces fought a battle with Islamic paramilitaries in which nine people were killed. Mr Maskhadov ordered the Islamic units to disband, called up reservists and extended a state of emergency by 10 days.

Russian politicians have said the new tensions could lead to civil war in Chechnya and that the violence could spill over into neighbouring regions, although Mr Maskhadov's spokesman has said the Russian media was exaggerating Chechnya's problems.

"Much money has poured into various religious organisations and extremist groups from outside Chechnya," reserve general Mr Alexander Lebed, who negotiated Russia's withdrawal from Chechnya, said after the assassination attempt.

"Maskhadov is taking risky steps. He has dissolved certain armed groups and strengthened the war against banditry and extremism," said Mr Lebed, now governor of a Siberian region.

Chechen authorities say Islamist units following the conservative Wahhabi tradition of Sunni Islam are supported from outside the republic.
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Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Jul 24, 1998
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