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Russia: Officials Respond To Bombing Relatively Calmly

Russian officials have been relatively silent on Saturday's car bombings that killed more than 20 people and injured more than 140 others. President Vladimir Putin has called the bombings tragic, but has refrained from using the same strong and emotional language he used following the 1999 apartment bombings -- even though officials blame both series of bomb blasts on Chechen rebels. RFE/RL Moscow correspondent Sophie Lambroschini reports:

Moscow, 27 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The official Russian reaction to three bombings over the weekend that killed 23 people has been relatively muted compared with the reaction after the 1999 apartment blasts.

Both series of blasts were blamed on Chechen rebels, but our correspondent says that in contrast to the 1999 bombings, which elicited swift condemnation and was later used as a pretext to the Chechen war, the reaction to Saturday's blasts has been low-key.

Twenty-three people were killed Saturday (24 March) in three separate car bomb attacks in the cities of Mineralnye Vodi, Essentuki, and Cherkessk, all not far from the Chechen border. Some 140 people were injured in the blasts.

Russia's Federal Security Service says the bombings were "a carefully planned act by Chechen distract Russian security forces from the operations in Chechnya." But Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov denies any role and puts the blame on organized crime.

The most vocal public reaction to the bombings to date has come from Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, who on 24 March called Chechnya a "source" of terrorism.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has said only that Saturday's bombings were a "tragic event." He blamed the bombs on terrorists and said that with terrorists, one can only speak with "severe methods." He did not say what those methods would be.

This compares to Putin's reaction after the 1999 bombings, which galvanized public opinion against the Chechens. After the first apartment blast in Moscow, Putin told a national television audience Russia was facing what he called a "sly, treacherous and bloodthirsty enemy." Later he promised to "rub out the bandits in the out-house (toilet)" to describe the way the Chechen rebels would be dealt with.

Observers say the Russian leadership, believing that the Chechen situation was under control, may simply have been stunned by Saturday's blasts.

Analyst and commentator Boris Kagarlitsky, who writes regularly about Chechnya for "Novaya Gazeta," says he thinks the authorities' relative silence reflects their helplessness. While in 1999, the apartment bombings served as an ideal excuse to intervene in Chechnya, the bombings go against today's official policy of saying that everything is under control.

"It shows you can't do anything, that all your talk about protecting the population from terrorism is complete nonsense. I think [officials] are dismayed because the Chechen terrorism that didn't exist has now appeared as the result of a two-year anti-terrorist operation. They (the officials) created a real problem from something they had invented earlier with their ideological and propaganda aims in mind. But they don't have the slightest idea of how to fight it now that it's real."

Law-enforcement officials have hurried to demonstrate their efficiency. Just hours after the blasts, the prosecutor's office was claiming arrests and saying that orders for the bombings came from the Jordanian rebel Khattab, who regularly gets the blame for large-scale Chechen actions.

Last night Russian state television showed footage of a man with a bloody nose being escorted to jail by police. The man allegedly admitted to receiving $1,000 from a close Khattab ally to park a car stuffed with explosives on the central square of Karachayevo-Cherkessiya. He was apparently stopped by police before he could finish the job and two bomb-disposal experts were killed trying to defuse the bomb.

News of the bombing contrasts sharply with the recent official view of events in Chechnya.

Just last week Putin described Chechnya as being largely under control and in need only of some fine tuning. Putin appeared to rule out the risk of any terrorists attacks, saying the rebels were no longer organized. He said it was unlikely that they would succeed in carrying out a massive raid into border territories:

"The most important thing is to [improve] the [Chechen] economy because those explosives and landmines are planted by just about anyone -- old people and young alike, and you think out of ideological convictions? [No, they're paid ] $10 to $15 to plant a mine. Why? Because they have nothing to eat. There's almost total unemployment there."

The bombings cast doubt on the government's wisdom to hand control of the war in Chechnya over to the FSB, the country's intelligence service and the successor organization to the KGB. The FSB, the main law-enforcement agency charged with fighting terrorism, assumed control over all operations in Chechnya last month with the main aim of capturing the rebels' commanders.

Yury Gladkevich, an analyst with the Military News agency in Moscow, says Saturday's blasts indicate the FSB has failed to take control of the situation. Gladkevich says the FSB's failure to find even one rebel leader is a sign that the policy in Chechnya is not going the way the authorities had hoped.

Gladkevich says it is too early to say how the authorities will react to the failure -- whether by reviewing the FSB's tasks or by reactivating the military.

A former head of the FSB and now head of the Duma Security Committee, Nikolay Kovalyov, agrees and says the FSB is not acting forcibly against the rebels because it would not be an easy operation. He says such an operation would mean the loss of at least 100 [soldiers].

Kovalyov says, in any event, hunting down rebel leaders is useless in itself as the leaders would just be replaced by a new generation. He says there is no way out other than a political solution.