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Russian President Putin Pays Surprise Visit to Violence-Torn Chechnya - 2004-08-22

Russian President Vladimir Putin paid a surprise and rare visit to Chechnya on Sunday, just a week before elections for provincial president. The visit coincides with growing violence in the region. On Saturday, gunmen attacked a Chechen police station and several polling stations, leaving dozens of people dead.

President Putin visited Chechnya on what would have been the 53rd birthday of Akhmad Kadyrov, the pro-Kremlin Chechen leader, who was assassinated in a bomb blast at a military parade in May. Mr. Putin laid flowers at Mr. Kadyrov's grave in his ancestral village of Tsentoroi.

Speaking at the ceremony, Vladimir Putin described the slain Chechen president as "a sincere, courageous and decent man, who had no other goal but to serve his people, and that the task is to fulfill everything that Akhmad Kadyrov had been planning to do."

The Russian leader's trip to Chechnya comes just a week before Chechens go to the polls to elect their new president to succeed Akhmad Kadyrov. Rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov has already vowed to kill the winner.

Meanwhile, violence continues in the province. On Saturday, gunmen attacked a police station and polling stations in the capital, Grozny. In one case, gunmen opened fire from a car at an Interior Ministry police station in the central square of Grozny, leaving at least seven people dead, five of them police officers.

A spokesman for the Russian forces in the Northern Caucasus, Ilya Shabalkin, said civilians were also targeted.

Mr. Shabalkin said, "The militants were planning a provocation. At first, they started to shoot the people selling stuff at the market. And unfortunately, 16 civilians who suffered from their fire are now in the hospital."

After flying from Chechnya to the Black Sea resort of Sochi, in southern Russia, President Putin met with the Chechen interior minister, Alu Alkhanov, considered the favorite to win the presidential election, and Chechnya's vice premier, Ramzan Kadyrov, the son of the assassinated president.

At the meeting, the Russian leader urged the Chechen officials to work harder on improving security in the region. As he put it, "no social or economic problems could be solved in Chechnya, without setting order and ensuring security."

Mr. Putin also gave his support to a proposal by Chechen officials to use revenues from Chechnya's oil exports to help the region's economy, rather than using funds from the federal budget.

Russian armed forces withdrew from the province in 1996 after a two-year war. They returned in September 1999 after rebels raided a neighboring province and were blamed for a series of deadly apartment building bombings in Moscow and other Russian cities, which killed more than 300 people.