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Putin Blames Chechen Separatists For Moscow Blast - 2004-02-06

Russian President Vladimir Putin has accused Chechen separatists of blowing up a Moscow underground commuter train Friday morning, killing at least 39 people and injuring more than 100 others. The separatist leader's spokesman has denied the charge.

Russian police and federal officials say they suspect a suicide bomber on board the train caused the blast and serious fire in one of the deepest underground tunnels in the Russian capital. The tunnel filled with thick black smoke, as people struggled to escape.

The morning commute descended into chaos across the city, after Russian officials shut down the metro line and immediately began a sweep of the entire Moscow metro system to prevent further deadly attacks.

President Putin said several hours after the attack that terrorism is the plague of the 21st century, and must be defeated.

Mr. Putin said he had no doubt Russian federal forces would redouble their efforts to fight terrorism.

Russia's Interfax news agency reports Mr. Putin also said he did not need to wait for confirmation to know the attack was the work of Chechen separatists, who have carried out many other suicide bombings in Russia. And he again ruled out any negotiations with terrorists, including Chechen separatist leader Aslan Maskhadov.

In a statement on an Internet Web site, a spokesman for Mr. Maskhadov has denied any involvement in Friday's bombing.

President Putin spoke with President Bush by telephone Friday. According to official statements in both capitals, the two leaders stressed their determination to fight terrorism.

Special security measures were already reported to have been implemented in Moscow after a series of suicide bombings last year, also blamed on Chechen separatist rebels. The last such attack was in December, when a female suicide bomber blew herself up just opposite the Kremlin, killing five people. Just this week, Chechen separatists were also suspected in an explosion in the southern Russian city of Vladikavkaz, near the Chechen border, which killed two people and injured 10 others.

A woman who survived Friday's deadly explosion was visibly shaken and bloody. She told Russian television that one of the worst moments came after the blast, when metro riders tried unsuccessfully to open the train's doors to escape.

The woman says she saw many injured people and that the rail car was badly damaged. She says once she and the others were able to exit the car, they had to walk about two kilometers along the tracks in total darkness. She said it was terrifying.

This is not the first time the Moscow metro has been the target of a bombing. There have been at least three other explosions in or around the metro since 1996.

The attacks come a little more than one month before Russia's scheduled presidential election, which President Putin is expected to win easily. Mr. Putin secured power, in part, through his tough pledge to stamp out Chechen terrorists, but analysts say the recent series of bombings have not put his expected victory into doubt.