- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 18, 2009

NAZRAN, Russia | A suicide bomber rammed a truck into a police station in the Russian region of Ingushetia on Monday, killing at least 20 police officers in the worst attack to ravage the poor North Caucasus republic in years.

The blast, which wounded more than 130 others, undermined Kremlin claims that its efforts to bring calm and prosperity to the impoverished patchwork of ethnic groups, clans and religions were succeeding. It also stoked fears that Ingushetia has replaced Chechnya as the next battleground in the southern Russian region.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack, which left the two-story building smoldering and a crater in the compound’s courtyard, where the attacker detonated the bomb.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev fired Ingushetia’s top police official and, in unusually harsh comments, said police forces were as much to blame as the attacker.

“This terrorist attack could have been prevented,” Mr. Medvedev said.

The European Union condemned the attack as “a brutal act” of terrorism, according to Agence France-Presse.

Ingushetia - more than any other North Caucasus region - has been reeling from militant violence in recent months, including a suicide bombing that severely wounded the Kremlin-appointed leader, Yunus-Bek Yevkurov.

Mr. Yevkurov blamed militants who have battled security forces in the forests along the mountainous border with Chechnya.

Investigators said the attacker Monday crashed his truck through the gates of city police headquarters in Nazran, Ingushetia’s main city, as officers were lining up for their morning inspection. Police fired at the truck, but failed to stop it.

The blast then triggered a fire that raged for hours, destroying a weapons room where ammunition detonated.

Hours later, rescue teams searched for more victims in the gutted ruins and wrecked vehicles. A nearby apartment building and several offices were also extensively damaged, and burned-out cars littered the street.

Emergency officials said 20 officers were killed and up to 138 people were wounded, with the death toll likely to rise as rescuers find more victims.

Monday’s bombing was the deadliest in Ingushetia since the June 21-22, 2004, militant attacks that killed nearly 90 people, mainly police officers.

The attack poses a serious challenge to the Kremlin and its policies in the largely Muslim North Caucasus, which is home to scores of ethnic groups that have battled Russian forces or fought among themselves.

In Ingushetia, Mr. Yevkurov’s predecessor, Murat Zyazikov, was loathed by much of the population for police abuses. He was forced out last year.

The situation in Ingushetia, one of Russia’s poorest regions, has been worsened by an influx of refugees who fled the fighting in Chechnya. A lingering territorial dispute with neighboring North Ossetia that sparked a brief war in the early 1990s also has stoked unrest.

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