MOSCOW - Chechen suicide bombers have set off a series of devastating blasts throughout the breakaway republic, killing at least 37 Russian soldiers and wounding 74, Russian officials said yesterday.
In a carefully coordinated rebel attack late Sunday, five trucks laden with explosives blew up in towns and cities ostensibly under Russian control. The bombings caught the Russian military unprepared and took place just a week after the Russian military declared the war all but won.
As the toll of dead and wounded continued to climb - one unofficial count put it at 44 soldiers killed and 120 injured - Moscow vowed to break the back of the rebel resistance.
"There is only one thing that can be done, to find and crush them," said Col. Gen. Valery Manilov, the deputy chief of staff of the Russian forces, who called off a trip to Britain because of the attacks. "Talks will not help. You can see what is happening there."
But the rebels said they were planning still more bombings, and Grozny, the Chechen capital, was rife with rumors that it was about to be attacked.
The use of suicide bombings represents a new and bloody stage of the war. In the nine months of fighting, Russian forces have swept through the northern plains, seized the ruined capital of Grozny, taken the major cities and towns in the Chechen lowlands and pursued the Chechen rebels in the southern mountains.
What they have not been able to do is pacify the restive population and weed out the enemies in their midst. Unable to take on the heavily equipped Russian military on its own terms, the rebels are mounting a guerrilla war.
Rebels have infiltrated the major towns, drawing support from local Chechens, embittered by the indiscriminate Russian attacks. Col. Gen. Gennady Troshev, the commander of Russian forces in Chechnya, insisted that he had recently instructed his troops to be especially vigilant, particularly in inspecting trucks.
But trucks full of explosives operated by suicide drivers still managed to elude Russian checkpoints Sunday and approach several major towns, possibly leaving from a base near Serzhen-Yurt, a settlement the Russians said they had seized last week in a fierce battle.
The evidence of the Russian laxity was painfully evident yesterday. In Argun, a town east of Grozny, which has been fought over several times during this year, a truck filled with explosives smashed into a dormitory housing militia from the region of Chelyabinsk in the Ural Mountains. The troops' tour of duty had just ended, and they were set to return home.
Instead, at least 30 died in the blast, which created a huge crater, 5 yards deep and 10 yards wide. Russian officials conceded that the dormitory had been poorly protected.
"The dormitory building was not well enough defended from the outside," said Sergei Yastrzhembsky, the Russian government spokesman. "As far as I know, the entrance to the territory was blocked only by a Kamaz truck. There were no concrete barricades."
In Gudermes, which functions as the administrative capital of the region, the Russian military was more successful. Two trucks full of explosives were stopped at the outskirts of the city.
The drivers were killed, and a Russian as well as Chechen soldiers were killed when the trucks exploded. One of the suicide truck drivers was believed to be trying to kill Akhmad Kadyrov, the Chechen official picked by Russian President Vladimir V. Putin to govern Chechnya, according to Russian officials.
Another truck full of explosives, also believed headed for Gudermes, was stopped near the settlement of Novogroznensky. It rammed into an Interior Ministry unit, killing three and wounding 20.
Yet another truck bomb exploded near the office of the military commandant in Urus-Martan. The truck blew up as it tried to ram the building, killing two soldiers in a concrete shelter.
The Russians later announced that they had detained 18 people suspected of involvement in the blast.
More than 2,100 Russian soldiers have been killed and 6,000 wounded since Oct. 1. The nation is weary of the war, but not to the point that the Russian public is willing to cede control of Chechnya to the rebels.
With each bombing or ambush, the Russians seem to be become more embittered. And with each air strike or artillery barrage, the Chechen public seems to have become angrier at its Russian masters.
On the Russian side, the Chelyabinsk region is an example. It had promised to help restore the town of Argun, one of the targets of yesterday's bombings. But stung by the loss of its fighters, its governor said it would no longer do so, ensuring that the restoration of Chechnya would take longer.
"As long as they kill our guys I won't give them a ruble," said Pyotry Sumin, the governor of the Chelyabinsk region. "And nobody will make me do this."
For the Chechens, much of their enmity is directed not only at the Russians but also at those Chechens who are cooperating with them.
Aslan Maskhadov, the separatist president of Chechnya before the Russian intervention, essentially called for the death of Akhmad Kadyrov, the Russian-appointed leader of Chechnya.
In an address that is recorded on videocassette and available in Chechnya, Maskhadov called Kadyrov "the main enemy of the Chechen people."