- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 5, 2003

VLADIKAVKAZ, Russia — A female bomber attacked a bus close to a Russian military air base near Chechnya yesterday, killing herself and at least 16 others in another blow to the Kremlin’s assertions that peace is returning to the volatile region.

The bus was carrying military and civilian personnel from the city of Mozdok to a nearby airfield. The death toll and accounts of the bombing differed, with some saying that the woman boarded the bus and others saying that she crawled underneath it to set off the bomb.

An Interior Ministry official in the North Ossetia region where the attack occurred said 19 persons died, including the attacker, while Russian prosecutors put the death toll at least 16.

Russian networks showed footage of bodies covered by sheets near the badly damaged red-and-white bus, which was riddled with small holes and dents near the door and missing most of its windows. Quoting regional prosecutor Alexander Begulov, Channel One television said the woman had detonated a bomb filled with metal balls.

The regional Interior Ministry official said the woman blew herself up after boarding the bus while it was waiting at a railroad crossing.

Russian Deputy Prosecutor General Sergei Fridinsky, however, said the woman approached the bus at its final stop en route to the base and blew herself up next to it. North Ossetian Prime Minister Mikhail Shatalov said the woman thrust herself under the bus before detonating the explosives, the Interfax news agency reported.

There are rules barring military vehicles from picking up passengers for fear of terrorist attacks, the Interior Ministry official said.

Mr. Fridinsky said it appeared that the attacker wanted to get inside the air base. The city, 80 miles northwest of the Chechen capital, Grozny, is the main headquarters for Russian forces who have been fighting rebels in Chechnya for most of the past decade.

The passengers included an air crew and support workers from the Prokhladny air base three miles from Mozdok, said North Ossetia’s emergency situations minister, Boris Dzgoyev. He said they were members of the 4th Air Army, which serves southern Russia.

Mr. Dzgoyev said there were at least 27 persons aboard the bus, and 12 were hospitalized.

Fierce fighting and rebel attacks have persisted in Chechnya and surrounding regions despite efforts by the Kremlin and the Moscow-backed government to boost stability after a decade of war and turmoil. Two suicide bombings killed at least 78 persons in a three-day period inside Chechnya in the past month, while buses and military vehicles are attacked frequently.

The bomber’s identity wasn’t known. Among Chechen rebels, suicide attacks by women are an increasingly common tactic. A woman blew herself up at a religious ceremony in Chechnya on May 14, killing at least 18 persons, and women draped with explosives took part in a hostage-taking raid on a Moscow theater in October.

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