GROZNY–Chechnya (Reuters)–The leader of Chechnya escaped with slight injuries on Thursday when a car bomb exploded near his motorcade–killing his driver and one of his bodyguards.
President Aslan Maskhadov–who commanded Chechen forces in a 21-month war against Russian troops–appeared in public soon after the attack to deny he was seriously hurt and to suggest Russian special forces might have been behind it.
"I am alive and well," an apparently unhurt Maskhadov told reporters at his residence in the Chechen capital–Grozny. "My political course will not change at all."
Maskhadov–viewed as a moderate in Moscow despite his demand that Russia recognize Chechen sovereignty–has been cracking down on armed criminal gangs and on Moslem fundamentalists.
Russian President Boris Yeltsin–who launched the war in 1994–sent a message expressing his "outrage" and offering help in tracking down those who sought to eliminate Maskhadov.
Yeltsin praised his efforts to prevent Chechnya descending into civil war but Maskhadov said Russia may have had a hand in organizing the attack on him.
Officials said the driver and a bodyguard were killed when the bomb exploded close to the motorcade. Maskhadov was slightly hurt in the leg. The blast left a crater one meter (three feet) across and scattered charred car parts along the road.
Maskhadov said the latest attempt on his life was the work of "foreign special forces…acting from afar with the hand of local provocateurs."
He did not say who the special forces were but added that Russia had tried to kill him in the past.
Itar-Tass news agency later quoted him as specifically accusing Russia as employing Chechen "traitors" to kill him.
Chechen Foreign Minister Movladi Udugov said the attack was part of a drive to destabilize Chechnya but said it would fail.
A spokesman for Russia’s Federal Security Service said he was unaware of any special forces involvement in the attack.
Russia has always dismissed Chechen suggestions in the past that it has been trying to foment instability.
Vladimir Zorin–a parliamentarian with responsibility for ethnic minority affairs–said Russia lacked the capability to carry out such a bombing.
Chechen authorities have said that foreigners are funding fundamentalist Islamic paramilitaries within the republic.
Maskhadov also has enemies at home. He has moved to crack down on groups responsible for a spate of hostage takings and has opponents who want a tougher line in relations with Moscow or a stronger Islamic tone to the region’s government.
Chechnya remains tense almost two years after the war ended with a humiliating withdrawal by Russian troops. Chechnya says it is independent but Moscow says it is still part of Russia–although it is unable to enforce its will and laws there.
Last week Chechen security forces fought a battle with Islamic paramilitaries in which nine people were killed. Maskhadov ordered the Islamic units to disband–called up reservists and extended a state of emergency by 10 days.
Russian politicians have said the new tensions could lead to civil war in Chechnya and that the violence could spill over into neighboring regions–although Maskhadov’s spokesman has said Russian media were exaggerating Chechnya’s problems.
"Much money has poured into various religious organizations and extremist groups from outside Chechnya," reserve general Alexander Lebed–who negotiated Russia’s withdrawal from Chechnya–said after the assassination attempt.
"Maskhadov is taking risky steps. He has dissolved certain armed groups and strengthened the war against banditry and extremism," said Lebed–now governor of a Siberian region.YEREVAN