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Chechnya rocked by car bombs

Putin has vowed he will not negotiate with rebel leaders  

SLEPTSOVSKAYA, Russia -- Three simultaneous car bombings have rocked Chechnya's second-largest city, killing three and wounding dozens, officials have told the Associated Press.

The blasts in Gudermes went off near a courthouse, a prosecutor's office and a police precinct, officials said. A fourth bomb was set to go off but Russian servicemen surrounded the car and exploded it intentionally.

Chechnya's pro-Moscow chief prosecutor, Viktor Dakhnov, said on Russia's ORT television two of the victims killed were civilians, and one was a police officer. A total of 37 people were wounded -- including 16 police officers and several civilians.

Chechen rebels have been blamed for the blasts.

Russian President Vladimir Putin -- who as prime minister launched the military campaign to return Chechnya to Moscow in 1999 -- is keeping an eye on the investigation, a spokesman for the Kremlin said.

RIA news agency quoted Russia's interior ministry as saying two men had been detained in connection with the blasts, Reuters reported.

Local prosecutors said the second and third bombs were timed to strike those helping to deal with the effects of the initial explosion, the local agency reported.

Most casualties came when shrapnel from the later blasts hit people trying to put out a fire caused by the first, it added.

Dakhnov told RIA the attacks were part of a rebel campaign to paralyze the pro-Moscow Chechen police force.

Chechen militants stage daily shootouts and plant mines targeting Russian military and police units. The rebels are blamed for frequent attacks on pro-Moscow Chechen officials.

Meanwhile, 16 Chechen refugees living in a tent camp have gone on hunger strike to draw attention to their demands that Russian and Chechen leaders enter negotiations to end the 22-month-old war.

Musa Kuvnurkayev, 55, who entered the sixth day of his hunger strike on Tuesday, said: "We are being killed in Chechnya anyway. There is no difference in how you perish."

The hunger strikers -- residents of the Satsita and Sputnik refugee camps in the Russian region of Ingushetia -- are demanding that Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov start peace negotiations and end the war.

However, Russian leaders have vowed they will not negotiate with rebel leaders whom they consider terrorists and bandits, and Maskhadov is believed to exercise little real authority over rebel commanders.

In an interview with journalists on Monday, Putin repeated that Moscow would never allow Chechnya to become independent.

He said talks with the rebels were impossible, and accused them of committing atrocities, including beheading foreigners, harassing ethnic Russians, threatening Jews and bullying their neighbours.

The Chechens -- a people traditionally opposed to rule from Moscow -- declared independence from the Russian Federation in 1991 shortly after the coup attempt to oust then Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.

Moscow sent in troops in 1994 to crush the Muslim separatists behind the independence declaration but after fierce fighting Russian troops were forced to retreat.

Russia troops re-entered Chechnya in 1999 after rebels penetrated the neighbouring republic of Dagestan in what Putin described as an effort to establish a united Islamic state from the Caspian to the Black Sea.

Russian forces are deployed through most of the territory, preventing large-scale rebel operations, but rebels have continued to unleash hit-and-run attacks that wound and kill federal servicemen.

One soldier was killed and three were wounded over the past 24 hours, a Russian military official speaking on condition of anonymity told AP.

• Russia Government
• Chechen Republic

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