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Chechen Suicide Bombers Threaten Fresh Attacks

Russian troops in Chechnya are steeling themselves for a second spate of bomb attacks as a rebel ultimatum runs out this weekend

Over 80 Chechens have been arrested in connection with last week's wave of kamikaze attacks on federal bases in the breakaway republic.

The four bombings which reportedly claimed up to 33 lives have sparked a massive crackdown in the occupied territories with troops ordered to fire on any non-military vehicles travelling at night. And the Russians are steeling themselves for a fresh terror campaign this weekend as a new set of rebel demands falls on deaf ears.

Deputy interior minister Vladimir Kozlov, who announced the latest arrests, refused to name the rebel commanders suspected of planning the raids, explaining that he didn't want to "give them any publicity". However, he said that two of the detainees had admitted to taking part in one of the attacks.

The Kremlin's growing confidence in the success of its military campaign was punctured last Sunday when a lorry loaded with explosives burst into a Russian military base in Argun. At least 27 police officers were killed in the ensuing blast.

Later that night, similar attacks were reported in Urus-Martan, Noibyora and Gudermes bringing the death toll up to 33. It is thought that another two lorries were driven into federal bases but failed to explode.

Chechen propaganda minister Movladi Udugov claimed that a total of 640 federal soldiers were killed in the explosions and a further 1,000 wounded but was unable to say how many kamikaze fighters lost their lives.

The suicide attacks were followed by an assassination attempt on Akhmad Kadyrov, the Moscow-appointed head of the civilian administration in Chechnya. The Chechen mufti was away from home when gunmen riddled his Gudermes residence with machine-gun bullets before driving away in two cars.

Top federal officials are blaming the upsurge in violence across Chechnya on Kadyrov's recent appointment which was instantly greeted by death threats from rebel warlords.

The Russian backlash has been swift and furious. On Monday evening, the commander of federal forces in Chechnya, Ivan Babichev, imposed a curfew across the republic, forbidding any civilians to leave their homes between 9pm and 7am.

Soldiers manning checkpoints have been given orders to fire without warning at any non-military vehicles breaking the curfew. Security at police and army bases has been stepped up dramatically.

Russian President Vladimir Putin promptly made an unscheduled visit to Mozdok, in North Ossetia, to rap the knuckles of the military top brass. He blamed the losses on low standards of discipline and ordered interior minister Vladimir Rushailo to form new police units out of Chechen volunteers. "They know the difference between a bandit, a terrorist and a religious fanatic," he explained.

The attacks have severely damaged Putin's credibility on the eve of his state-of-the-nation address to the Russian parliament. Observers have pointed out that Moscow was unable to disguise the extent of the casualties as 22 of the victims came from one town - Chelyabinsk - which buried the first of its dead last Wednesday.

Smarting from their dressing down, the Russian generals felt compelled to make public shows of bravado. Colonel-General Valery Manilov, deputy head of the general staff, confidently announced that the military campaign would be over by August 31 and promised to take "the most odious warlords" dead or alive by that time.

Other senior commanders have angrily dismissed as "mystification" recent claims by rebel leaders that there are currently 15,000 fighters in the mountain hideouts, receiving regular supplies of food and weapons from abroad.

They say the rebels can muster less than 2,000 men with "a few dozen" of these under President Aslan Maskhadov's command. The rest are said to be "Arab mercenaries" who have joined the infamous Islamic regiments from bases in Afghanistan and Georgia.

However, Russia's generals are undoubtedly steeling themselves for a fresh wave of terrorist attacks this coming weekend as Shamil Basaev's latest ultimatum runs out. Basaev has threatened to target more federal bases across the North Caucasus unless the Kremlin agrees to a list of terms including the surrender of a Russian colonel charged with the rape and murder of an 18-year-old Chechen girl.

Meanwhile, Movladi Udugov claims that the Chechen suicide regiment, Shakhid, now numbers 577 volunteers who have accepted a wide range of kamikaze missions. These desperate tactics were first employed by the rebels early last month when 22-year-old Khala Baraeva, cousin of the warlord Arbi Baraev, drove an explosive-laden truck into the federal base in Alkhan-Yurt, killing two police officers.

Alexander Voronin is a correspondent for Moskovsky Komsomolets and a regular contributor to IWPR