Toll From Chechen Homicide Bombing Reaches 57

The homicide bombers who set off twin blasts that leveled Chechnya's government headquarters were allowed through several security cordons around the building because they were disguised as Russian servicemen, officials said Saturday, as the death toll rose to 57.

The pair of trucks drove into the heavily guarded compound and exploded just after lunch Friday. The blasts, which had a combined force equivalent to a half-ton of TNT, wrecked the main building, blowing away doors, windows and interior walls and leaving behind a concrete shell. The front half of a second building collapsed.

Rescuers combed through the rubble in a desperate search for survivors, but nobody was pulled out alive on Saturday. At least 57 people were confirmed dead and 121 wounded, said Yuri Kolodkin, a duty officer at the Emergency Situations Ministry in southern Russia. He said 61 people remained hospitalized, and more than half of them were in serious condition.

The bombings, at one of the most heavily guarded spots in Chechnya, severely damaged Russian President Vladimir Putin's claims that peace is returning to the region, where Russian forces have battled separatists for five of the past eight years.

The two trucks had army-registered license plates, said Mikhail Syomochkin, of Chechnya's Emergency Situations Department. When the trucks got close to the government headquarters, they sped up and burst through the gates. A soldier opened fire before the vehicles exploded, he said.

Chechnya's deputy interior minister, Akhmed Dakayev, said there were three suicide bombers in the two trucks. The men wore Russian military uniforms and presented military IDs, the Interfax and ITAR-Tass news agencies quoted Dakayev as saying.

Viktor Kazantsev, Putin's envoy in the southern federal district that includes Chechnya, said the servicemen guarding the compound had been negligent.

"The agency in charge of the security of the government compound functioned exceptionally poorly," Interfax quoted him as saying in Grozny. "Many people, from rank-and-file soldiers to high-ranking individuals, were careless."

The Russian Foreign Ministry said the bombers were part of an international terrorist army.

"The monstrous crime in Grozny shows convincingly that the activities of terrorists in Chechnya are a continuation of the global terrorist challenge," the ministry said in a statement. "The international criminals use methods that have been well rehearsed in other parts of the world."

The government compound had been targeted previously. In September, a bomb exploded in the main building during a meeting of top Chechen officials, killing a cleaning woman.

High-ranking Chechen officials were among Friday's casualties, but none of the top leadership was in the buildings at the time of the blasts.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack, but Russian officials variously blamed Chechnya's rebel president Aslan Maskhadov and warlord Shamil Basayev. A Maskhadov spokesman on Friday denied the rebel government had been involved.

Some Grozny residents accused Russia's Federal Security Service of orchestrating the blasts to fuel the war. Many people in Chechnya and elsewhere blame the security service for a series of deadly 1999 apartment house bombings in Russian cities that officials attributed to Chechen rebels. The bombings, which killed more than 300 people, were one of the main justifications for reigniting the war.

Throughout Saturday, workers at the scene piled corpses and body parts in front of the buildings, as a crowd of people waited in the cold for news of missing relatives.

Rescuers stopped their work when darkness fell and were to continue Sunday, Interfax reported, citing Chechnya's Deputy Emergency Minister Akhmed Dzhairkhanov.

The bombings followed an October hostage raid by Chechen rebels at a Moscow theater that left 41 rebels and 129 hostages dead. Rebels also shot down several military helicopters near the main Russian military base on the outskirts of Grozny this fall and organized two major explosions in Grozny that together killed at least 44 people.

Although Russian troops have had nominal control of Grozny since early 2000, rebels regularly infiltrate the city and inflict daily casualties with hit-and-run attacks on Russian troops and their Chechen supporters. The city remains largely in ruins from years of intense Russian air and artillery attacks.