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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Plume of Fire Rends Euphoric Motorcade

GROZNY -- The Chechen delegation pulled out of Nazran in style, heading home from the peace talks Tuesday in high spirits, in a convoy of 40 cars of armed fighters and supporters, horns blaring, lights flashing and the Chechen green flag flying on every other car.

They had won major concessions from the Russians in peace talks a day earlier in the Ingush capital and the euphoria was palpable.

All went smoothly through Ingushetia. Local police organized the cavalcade, clearing oncoming traffic, including a Russian tank, to the side of the road. Ingush traffic police saluted the convoy, grins on their faces as they stood proudly to attention.

Cars and buses sounded their horns, onlookers punched their fists in the air in the Chechen salute of independence. A lone man in a silver prayer hat swung a huge Chechen flag beside the road. "Allahu Akbar (God is Great)," an old man shouted, his face wreathed in smiles.

Russian soldiers watched sullenly as the convoy swept through their checkpoints into Chechnya. Two sitting on a tank gave the finger to the Chechens. Others stood or lay behind defenses, guns and rocket-propelled grenades aimed at the passing cars.

Then just beyond Samashki, a Chechen village whose name is synonymous with violence, huge explosions sent the cars swerving across the road as a plume of fire roared into the sky.

Red flashes shot across the road as three mines blew up in quick succession, bursting and setting alight the gas mains running alongside just meters from the road. Dirt and shrapnel hit the cars, the force of the blasts breaking windows and wounding three people.

Armed fighters leapt from their cars, guns at the ready, twisting grenades into shoulder-held launchers. Machine gun fire rattled out as one fighter raked the air at a departing helicopter that had been circling the convoy.

It killed the euphoria. The convoy had just passed through a crowd of several hundreds of cheering villagers in Samashki. Children ran madly from car to car, jumping up to slap the hands of the fighters, as villagers pulled fighters out of their cars to embrace them.

The hero of the hour, chief of Chechen forces and leader of the peace delegation Aslan Maskhadov, returning home after winning Russian promises to withdraw their troops and dismantle their roadblocks, stood on top of his car and spoke through a loudspeaker to the crowd.

"The war has ended. No more will Russian planes and helicopters bomb your homes. No more will tanks run through your streets.

"We must all unite," he said, raising his fist as the crowd shouted "Allahu Akbar."

Maskhadov has always warned against Chechnya descending into the "Afghan variant," where, with the departure of the Russians, parties vying for power in the territory could turn in on themselves in a civil conflict.

Minutes after leaving Samashki, as the cavalcade passed the village of Davydenko, 30 kilometers west of Grozny, it was broken up by the mine blasts, which his fighters immediately blamed on the Moscow-installed government in Grozny.

The convoy drove on again, setting out along the main Baku-Rostov highway that runs south of the capital Grozny. Four huge explosions rent the air, billowing black smoke across the road.

In full path of the blasts were the three observers of the OSCE and a Russian militia jeep leading the convoy. Two farmers scything hay were injured.

The explosions like the ones before, were mines, detonated by remote control, Chechen commanders in the convoy and members of the OSCE said.

"It is no coincidence," one of the military observers of the OSCE said.

The blasts were the "work of those who are against the peace process," Tim Guldimann, head of the OSCE mission in Grozny said, refusing to be more specific.

Movladi Udugov, chief Chechen spokesman, said he had received information that the secretary of the Russian security Council, Oleg Lobov, and head of the pro-Moscow Chechen government in Grozny, Doku Zavgayev, were behind the blasts.

But Sergei Stepashin, a Russian delegate to the talks, blamed Chechens for the blasts. He said the rebels had warned them that there were uncontrolled groups of Chechens out to avenge the deaths of their relatives and friends.

"I think that it's those same uncontrolled groups," he said.