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Blast derails train from Chechnya

(The following story by Kim Murphy appeared on the Los Angeles Times website on June 13.)

MOSCOW -- An explosion derailed a train bound from Chechnya to Moscow on Sunday, injuring eight people seriously enough to be hospitalized as festivities began for the Russian version of independence day.

Authorities were looking for two men seen near the derailment, which occurred about 90 miles south of Moscow when the equivalent of 6 pounds of TNT exploded under the front fender of the locomotive. A remote-control detonating device was found about 50 yards from the tracks.

The train's relatively slow speed as it departed a station near the town of Uzunovo prevented more serious injuries or deaths, police said. Among the worst injured were a train conductor, who was hospitalized with a spinal injury, and an 18-month-old girl who suffered burns.

The blast derailed four cars and left a crater about a yard wide and 1 1/2 feet deep.

Prosecutors said they had opened a criminal investigation on charges of terrorism and attempted murder. Chechen separatists have previously attacked trains and military vehicles departing the separatist republic in southern Russia. Train service between the Chechen capital of Grozny and Moscow was restored in 2001, and has been hailed by Russian authorities as a sign of the normalization of the republic after more than a decade of war.

"From the Kremlin's point of view, the train meant that the war is over, and life is getting more and more normal. Now, this symbol has been very seriously shattered," Musa Muradov, a former Grozny journalist who covers Chechnya for the Moscow newspaper Kommersant, said in an interview.

"It is pure luck that, given the situation in which four cars were derailed, there were no fatalities and only a few injuries," he said.

"It's a warning for all of us that we should expect a very hot and turbulent summer," said Anna Politkovskaya, a Chechnya analyst for the Novaya Gazeta newspaper. "The Kremlin's train of peace is derailed, and that's a fact."

The attack came early on the day the nation commemorates the Russian Federation's declaration of sovereignty from the Soviet Union in 1990. It was marked with holiday concerts and other celebrations that largely went off as planned, though one concert that had been expected to draw 20,000 to Red Square was postponed "for technical reasons."

Railroad employees and passengers said they heard a loud clap and felt a sudden jolt before the train began to veer off the tracks.

Transportation Minister Igor Y. Levitin told the Interfax news agency that the assistant engineer noticed two men walking rapidly back toward the station just as passengers were leaping out of the carriages. "Their behavior differed from the behavior of other passengers," he said.

Anxious friends and relatives rushed to the train's Moscow station when word of the explosion was aired on television, and at first were told only that the train had been delayed. Passengers arrived on an alternate train about five hours after the 7:10 a.m. explosion.

A total of 42 passengers were treated for high blood pressure, bruises and minor head injuries. Eight were hospitalized.

"Such a thing has never happened [to us] … and we never thought it would — that's the kind of moment today was," Aishat Iskhashieva, a train employee, told NTV television.

Monday, June 13, 2005

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