Chechnya peace plan in ruins as bomb toll rises


RUSSIA: The death toll in the truck bombing of a military hospital near Chechnya reached 50 yesterday, all but confirming that Moscow's peace process for the region is in tatters. Chris Stephen reports from Moscow.

And the Kremlin is now facing a crisis with a general election five months away and its failure to subdue Chechnya likely to become a crucial voters' issue.

Rescue workers continued yesterday pulling bodies from the rubble of the military hospital at Mozdok, the main supply base for operations in Chechnya.

In addition to the 50 dead, 80 were wounded in the blast which happened on Friday night when a truck laden with explosives was driven up to the main gates and detonated.

It follows a summer campaign by female Chechen suicide bombers in Moscow which has left Russians on edge.

President Vladimir Putin was quick to condemn the attack, insisting it would not derail the search for peace.

And he despatched his Defence Minister, Mr Sergei Ivanov, to the scene to supervise rescue efforts.

But this bombing throws a huge question mark over the Kremlin's "normalisation" claims for the province.

Since the spring, Moscow has been insisting that fighting is all but over in Chechnya.

To this end, in March, it supervised a referendum where a majority voted for a Kremlin plan to give Chechnya autonomy but not independence.

On the back of that referendum result, provincial elections are now being organised for early October. But significantly, the Kremlin has refused to include the rebels in this process.

Rebel leaders are regarded as outlaws. They were not consulted about the referendum, and are barred from the elections, due in early October.

A partial amnesty for rebel fighters, while drawing 200 surrenders, excludes anyone guilty of killing federal troops - in other words, most of the rebel units.

This may prove a costly mistake - despite a war in which more than 10,000 have died, and which has seen much of the province laid waste and the capital, Grozny, devastated, rebel resistance continues.

And with the limited peace moves proving ineffective, the Kremlin's cupboard is now bare. Rebel forces continue to mount daily ambushes on Russian units in the province.