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Powerful Explosion Rocks Chechnya's Capital - 2002-10-10

A blast in the breakaway Russian region of Chechnya has killed at least 13 people and injured several others late Thursday. A powerful explosion tore through a police building in Grozny, capital of the breakaway region which has been the scene of almost constant fighting for the last decade.

According to officials in Chechnya, a meeting of police officials was under way on the third floor of the four-storey building. Rescue workers and investigators are searching through the rubble for survivors and the number of dead is expected to climb.

The Deputy Mayor of Grozny, Supyan Makhchayev, speaking on Russia's ORT television, said it was a pre-meditated attack and he blamed the explosion on Chechen separatists.

But other officials said investigators have not ruled out the possibility that it could have been caused by a gas explosion.

Russian soldiers and Chechen separatists have fought two wars since the fall of the Soviet Union. The latest conflict started in 1999, and Kremlin officials have repeatedly said the war is over except for a few "mopping up operations."

But Chechen separatists often kill Russian soldiers in ambushes and mine attacks. People perceived to be sympathetic to the Moscow-backed government are often killed in shootings. And buildings used by the pro-Moscow Chechen government such as the police building where the explosion occurred Thursday are often the target of bombings.

If the attack turns out to be the work of Chechen separatists, it would be another blow to Russian President Vladimir Putin who has made bringing order to Chechnya one of his main goals. News of the explosion comes as British Prime Minister Tony Blair is in Russia for talks with Russian officials.

While Mr. Blair's visit is expected to focus on Iraq, he may also address the issue of Chechnya with Mr. Putin.

Western leaders and human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch have often criticized Russian troops in Chechnya, saying they are guilty of gross human rights violations there, charges Russia denies.