MOSCOW, Dec 27: Suspected Chechen suicide bombers rammed vehicles packed with a ton of explosives into the local government headquarters in Grozny on Friday, gutting the building and killing at least 46 people.

Two huge explosions went off within a minute of each other, devastating the four-storey government building, gutting rows of official vehicles and spewing debris over a wide area.

Television pictures showed bodies scattered on the frozen ground as small groups of dazed staff and security personnel, blood pouring from head wounds, staggered towards medical crews.

Chechnya’s acting prosecutor Vladimir Kravchenko said that the death toll had risen from 32 to about 46, while news agencies said around 60 people had been injured.

“The power of the explosion was about one ton, the explosion crater is about six metres,” Kravchenko said.

The raid, just two months after a mass hostage-taking in Moscow, was apparently aimed at shattering Russian claims that life in Chechnya is returning to normal. President Vladimir Putin has planned a March referendum on a political settlement that would keep Chechnya within Russia.

SCENES OF CARNAGE: After the blasts, smoke rose from the shattered building, one of few to have been rebuilt after Russian troops seized the capital in 2000, while sobbing staff staggered to safety.

“There are a lot of casualties, they’re endless,” Raisa, a journalist with Grozny television, said.

“There are very many wounded, hundreds I think, they are still trying to extract them (from debris), people are under slabs”.

Sergei Zaitsev, a spokesman for Russia’s main Khankala military base just outside Grozny, said there were normally 150-200 people in the building at any one time.

For kilometres around the building, houses shook and windows were blown out by the blast, she said.

The head of the pro-Russian administration in Chechnya, Akhmad Kadyrov, was in Moscow at the time of the attack, which Russian news agencies said had been carried out by suicide bombers. More than 30 people died in the last such attack in July 2000, when a Russian police building was targeted.

The attack happened early in the afternoon when two vehicles packed with explosives — a truck and an off-road vehicle — rammed protective barriers around the building, Kravchenko said.

Footage broadcast by Russian television showed the building, one of the city’s most heavily guarded, completely gutted.

A sombre Stanislav Ilyasov, the Russian government minister with responsibility for Chechnya, arrived on the scene shortly after the blasts.

“The main thing now is that rescue work is being carried out, debris is being cleared up”, he told NTV television.

“Today we need to do more urgent things, save those who are still alive, to take wounded to hospitals,” he added.

Russian forces have been fighting the Chechens on and off since 1994. An agreement in 1996 gave the province de facto independence, but Russian troops went back in 1999 and the elected president, Aslan Maskhadov, was ousted.

European powers have urged Putin to resume peace talks with Maskhadov, a call rejected by Russia. The Kremlin says Maskhadov is either complicit with rebels behind the bold attacks or incapable of preventing them and thus irrelevant.

Instead of seeking a peace partner among the fighters, Russia has tried to impose its own political process on the province, including a Chechen-run government. But it has failed to win widespread support among ordinary people, who distrust leaders loyal to Russia.—Reuters

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