Russian forces tighten grip on Chechnya after bombings


MOSCOW - Russia's military forces bombed Chechen rebels yesterday, imposed a strict curfew in the rebellious province and made numerous arrests in the wake of truck bomb attacks that claimed dozens of lives.

The new measures suggested that Russian leaders were taking seriously threats by Chechen rebels to launch more "kamikaze" attacks, as early as today, against Russian military targets and pro-Kremlin Chechens.

Russian officials, meanwhile, revised downward the number of servicemen killed in Sunday night's suicide attacks in five Chechen cities.

Sergei Yastrzhembsky, President Vladimir V. Putin's spokesman on the war, put the count at 33 dead, 84 injured and three missing. However, state ORT television reported last night that two of the missing were found dead, which would raise the death toll to 35.

Yastrzhembsky did not have a count of civilian or rebel deaths in the attacks on Russian outposts by drivers of trucks loaded with TNT.

Most of the Russians killed were part of an Interior Ministry contingent whose two-story dormitory in Argun, about six miles from Grozny, was targeted by rebels. The building was blown up by a truck that made it through guarded checkpoints and detonated its load as it reached the Russian barracks.

The troops in Argun were nearing the end of their tour of duty, and, as in most Russian military units, most hailed from the same community.

Russia's NTV television station interviewed several injured soldiers who returned to the Chelyabinsk region of the Urals yesterday.

"We were threatened every day there," said Andrey Shevtsov, a senior lieutenant wounded in Argun. "We were told [by the Chechens]: 'You will be dealt with,' and dealt with we were - they kept their promise. It's useless to try to talk to them. Order has to be established, otherwise there's nothing to talk to them about."

Interfax news agency reported that Russian forces claimed to have eliminated 11 Chechen rebel strongholds in dozens of bombing missions by attack planes and helicopter gunships in the 24 hours following Sunday night's blasts.

The government also imposed an indefinite curfew throughout Chechnya between 9 p.m. and 7 a.m., and warned that soldiers would shoot at drivers who violated the restrictions.

However, after blocking nonmilitary traffic in and out of major cities in Chechnya on Monday, officials eased daytime travel restrictions yesterday.

In other developments, Chechen prosecutor Vladimir Kravchenko told Interfax that 30 people suspected of involvement in the deadly bombings had been arrested and that "sufficient evidence has been collected" against some of them.

The Chechen rebels - through their Web site, - reported that fierce new fighting was under way in parts of the province and threatened additional truck bombings.

The rebel Web site said two "kamikaze" battalions had been formed and that a third would soon be organized, for an overall strength of 800 fighters - regarded by the rebels as Islamic martyrs.

The rebels continued to insist that as many as 640 Russian soldiers were killed in Sunday's bombings.

The fighting in Chechnya is a continuation of a centuries-long conflict between Russians and Chechens who want to form a nation independent of Russia. The latest war began 10 months ago after Russian troops invaded Chechnya, blaming rebels there for apartment bombings that killed 300 people in Russia and for armed incursions into nearby Dagestan.

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