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Female Suicide Bomber Kills 18 Near Chechnya - 2003-06-05

In Russia, a female suicide bomber has blown up a bus carrying Russian Air Force pilots and some civilians near the breakaway republic of Chechnya. Russian officials say at least 18 people are dead.

It is the third suicide bombing in the southern Russian region in less than a month, and deals yet another blow to President Vladimir Putin's claims that the area is returning to normal.

Mr. Putin was immediately notified of the attack, which took place in Mozdok, in North Ossetia, and met with Prosecutor General Vladimir Ustinov a short while later to be briefed on the status of events.

Speaking on Russian television, Mr. Ustinov said the bombing was not an isolated incident. He also sought to connect the incident to international terrorists.

Mr. Ustinov said these terror tactics were brought to Russia from other countries, adding that earlier in the Chechen conflict, there were no suicide attackers.

Russians officials have increasingly cast their war against separatists in Chechnya as part of the global campaign against terrorism.

There has been no claim of responsibility for the blast.

In addition to those killed, a Russian official in the Mozdok district told reporters that more than a dozen people were wounded in the blast, some seriously, and that the death toll could rise.

Last month, in a span of three days, nearly 80 people were killed inside Chechnya in two separate suicide bombings, also carried out by female attackers.

Thursday's bombing comes one day before Russia's lower house of parliament, the Duma, is expected to take a final vote on bringing a partial amnesty into force. President Putin offered the amnesty as part of a wider blueprint to solve the Chechen conflict, which dates back to the mid-1990s.

Critics say the amnesty does not include hardcore fighters, and would actually benefit many Russian servicemen suspected of human rights abuses in the region.

Meanwhile, Russian Human Rights Commissioner Oleg Mironov told a Moscow news conference Thursday that human rights violations were still abundant in Chechnya. Mr. Mironov also expressed concern about the disappearance of Chechen residents in so-called sweep operations carried out by Russian armed forces and law enforcement agencies.

There was no immediate response from the Russian government. But President Putin has in the past urged federal forces to respect human rights.