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Moscow points to Grozny's Arab tie

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Suicide bombers in the Chechen capitol of Grozny set off a pair of blasts that shattered the country's government building killing dozens of people (December 27)
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MOSCOW, Russia (CNN) -- Terrorist acts targeting Grozny are being financed by unnamed Arab countries, Moscow's leading anti-espionage agent says.

The head of the anti-terrorist branch for the northern Caucasus, Col. Ilya Shabalkin, said orders were coming from a well-known rebel, Shamil Basayev, and a representative of the "Muslim Brotherhood" -- Abu Al Walid , CNN's Jill Dougherty reported.

Military intelligence, he says, recently learned that Abu Al Walid was ordering a series of terrorists attacks on Grozny. The attacks are being financed by several Arab countries, which were not named.

The comments come as Russian officials revised the death toll in the twin bomb attacks on a pro-Moscow government building in the Chechnya capital downwards to 40. The number of injured in Friday's suicide attacks has jumped to 152.

Aslan Maskhadov, a Chechen separatist leader recognised as the republic's president until Russia established a Moscow-based Chechen council in 1999, denied Saturday any connection to a deadly suicide bombing in Grozny and even condemned it.

Maskhadov, a former Russian army officer, said such suicide bombings play into the hands of the Russian leadership, which, he said, was "doing everything possible to kill Chechens at the hands of Chechens."

"I appeal to those who... have decided to go down the path of martyrdom," Maskhadov said in a statement posted on an Islamic Web site. "I understand you, but I cannot support you."

But Dougherty added: "There are a number of groups working in Chechnya... with some linked to al Qaeda, and some splinter groups. So it is difficult in some cases to say who is taking responsibility."

About a tonne of explosives exploded outside the building after a jeep packed with the materials rammed through an armed security gate and continued towards the building.

Thirty seconds later another blast went off. The explosions virtually destroyed the building and left a 10 metre wide and four metre deep crater outside.

A spokesman for the Russian federal forces described the minutes just before the attack, saying guards opened fire when they realised something was wrong but the vehicle kept moving, pulling close to the building and exploding with deadly force.

Dougherty said questions were being asked about how two suicide bombers could get through Grozny and approach one of the most protected buildings and bomb it.

Interfax news agency is saying the men used a jeep bearing military number plates and showed documents at security checkpoints which resembled Chechen government paperwork.

Rescue attempts continue on Saturday with giant cranes being brought in to lift debris. A fifth person was dragged from the rubble, officials say. Two hundred people had been in the building at the time of the attack.

The majority of those killed were Chechens, including at least seven members of law enforcement, a Chechen Interior Ministry spokesman told Russia's Interfax news agency.

None of the top Chechen leadership were injured, Interfax reported.

The Kavkaz Centre, which operates a Chechen Islamic Web site, said Chechen "shaheeds" (martyrs) were responsible for the explosions.

Heightened security

Russian officials said Chechen leaders had recently met and ordered an attack against Chechnya's pro-Russian government.

Russian President Vladimir Putin called the attack -- which shattered the government's image of a Chechnya returning to normal after years of conflict between Moscow and separatist Chechens -- "inhuman" and said that Chechen rebels were "waging a war on their own people."

Russian officials are stepping up security in Grozny and the rest of the breakaway republic, as well as Moscow, in the run-up to Russia's biggest holiday, New Year.

"They fear this will be an opportune time for something to happen," Dougherty added.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell offered his country's condolences and urged Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov to find a political solution to the problem.

Powell added: "We call on Chechen leaders to firmly renounce terrorist acts and cut ties with terrorist groups."

Russian forces had stepped up their activity in the region after a theatre siege in Moscow two months ago.

Last week, Russian police arrested two Chechens they said were wearing explosive material in their belts and carrying grenades.

Russia first occupied Chechnya in 1994, three years after the breakaway republic declared its independence. The Russians withdrew in 1996 after Chechen rebels fought the Russian military to a draw. But the military returned in October 1999, after Chechen rebels invaded the neighbouring Russian republic of Dagestan.

-- CNN Moscow Bureau Chief Jill Dougherty contributed to this report.



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