A powerful explosion killed at least 17 police officers Thursday in Grozny, capital of the breakaway Russian republic of Chechnya. The blast came just hours before Russian President Vladimir Putin said in his annual state of the nation address that the military conflict in Chechnya is over.
Thursday's blast was the latest and most deadly attack against Russian and pro-Moscow military and police units in Chechnya in some time.
The cause of the blast appears to have been a remote-controlled landmine, detonated to hit a truck carrying members of the elite Chechen riot police unit, known as OMON.
Senior OMON leader, Sultan Satuyev told Russian television this was clearly an attack by Chechen rebels, whom he called cowards and monsters.
"Those who carry out this war are cowards, not men," Sultan Satuyev said. "They tried to scare us off, but they will fail." He also promised his men would respond.
Separatist Chechen rebels often use remote-controlled landmines and bombs to target Russian and pro-Moscow Chechen soldiers, police and officials.
Russian troops fought a brutal and bloody war against Chechen rebels in 1994, but then withdrew from the republic two years later. In 1999, then-Prime Minister Putin sent Russian soldiers back in to track down Chechen separatists, who had staged attacks on villages in the neighboring republic of Dagestan. Since then the conflict has turned into a largely guerrilla-type war, in which Russian soldiers, rebel fighters and Chechen civilians die on an almost daily basis.
Moscow says the rebels are terrorists with ties to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network. However, Russian troops have also come under international criticism for alleged human rights violations against Chechnya's civilian population.
Thursday's attack in Grozny came just hours before Russian President Vladimir Putin gave his annual state-of-the-nation address, in which he briefly addressed the Chechen issue.
Mr. Putin said the military stage of the Chechen conflict is over. He blamed any continuing unrest on "bandits" and "terrorists" and vowed they would be hunted down. He said the focus in Chechnya should now be on reconstruction and on establishing functioning political, judicial and law enforcement institutions.
It's not the first time the President has said the war in Chechnya is over. This latest bomb attack would seem to contradict Mr. Putin's assessment. And, as the violence continues, reconstruction and a functioning local government appear a long way off.