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Near Chechnya, truck-bomb destroys a military hospital

MOSCOW — MOSCOW - A truck loaded with explosives blew up outside a military hospital in southern Russia last night, killing at least 35 people and wounding dozens more, in the latest in a wave of suicide bombings that have spread Russia's war in Chechnya beyond that battered republic's borders.

The force of the explosion destroyed the three-story hospital in Mozdok, a town in the republic of North Ossetia that has served as a staging base for the Russian military in both wars in Chechnya since 1994. The explosion also damaged other buildings and a tent camp for soldiers recovering from wounds, one witness said.

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Rescue workers continued searching through the rubble overnight, hampered by a fire in the ruins. As many as 100 patients and employees were in the hospital when the truck exploded about 7 p.m. local time, officials cited by Russian news agencies said, raising the likelihood the death toll would rise.

Yesterday's bombing, the eighth in Russia in less than three months, underscored the deadly escalation of terrorist tactics by guerrillas fighting for Chechnya's independence.

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The bombings have spread fear throughout the country, even in the heart of Moscow, where Red Square has been cordoned off to the public indefinitely, and they have undercut President Vladimir V. Putin's strategy to isolate the separatists and restore peace.

Chechnya held a constitutional referendum in March and has scheduled presidential elections for Oct. 5.

Putin, who the Kremlin said was informed of the attack immediately, telephoned the directors of the Federal Security Service and the Prosecutor General's Office and ordered a criminal investigation. He also dispatched the defense minister, Sergei B. Ivanov, to Mozdok to oversee the rescue efforts.

The attacks have continued despite heightened security across the country. In a sign of the potential political impact, the speaker of the lower house of parliament, Gennadi N. Seleznyov, told the Interfax news agency last night that security forces were not doing enough to stop the bombings.

The bombing was evidence, he said, that "the number of militants is not decreasing and the germ of terrorism is spreading from Chechnya to other parts of Russia."

Mozdok, about 35 miles northwest of the Chechen border, had largely escaped the bloodshed next door until this spring. On June 5, a woman blew herself up while trying to board a bus at a military base there, killing at least 18 passengers.

Suicide bombings had been relatively rare in both Chechen wars. The deadliest occurred in December when two trucks loaded with explosives drove through a military perimeter and destroyed the headquarters of Chechnya's pro-Moscow government in the capital, Grozny. More than 70 people died and scores were wounded.

Russian officials have attributed such tactics to the influence of fundamentalist Islamic terrorist groups. While some officials and analysts in Europe and the United States have said the links to groups such as al-Qaida might be overstated, there is little question that the prolonged war in Chechnya has radicalized some of the separatist fighters.

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Since the middle of May, the suicide attacks have proliferated in spite of the political process now under way, or perhaps because of it.

Before the bombing yesterday, there had been five suicide attacks in or near Chechnya and two in Moscow, all involving women, who are being called "black widows" because they are said to be avenging the deaths of husbands or fathers at the hands of Russian forces there.


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