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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Chechnya Closes In On Terror Suspects

Police in the strife-ridden republic of Chechnya said Friday that they were close to arresting several people suspected of carrying out an assassination attempt on Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov.

Maskhadov escaped with only a bruised knee Thursday when a car bomb exploded as his Chevrolet jeep drove through the Chechen capital, killing one bodyguard and seriously wounding four others.

Maskhadov initially hinted that he suspected Moscow was behind the blast, but qualified that statement Friday by saying he had meant "foreign" special services were to blame. Commentators have said the attack was most likely a backlash against Maskhadov's clampdown on Islamic fundamentalists.

Khavazh Serbiyev, prosecutor general of the republic in southern Russia, refuted reports that suspects had already been arrested.

He said, however, that police had found the apartment in which the bomb was prepared, and expected to be able to arrest the suspects in the near future, Interfax reported. He said ammunition and explosives had been found in the apartment in a high-rise building a few blocks from the scene of Thursday's explosion.

Maskhadov ordered Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, a clan leader and former president of Chechnya, to testify before an Islamic court on any involvement in the assassination attempt. Yandarbiyev was exonerated from any suspicion after Maskhadov's representatives told the court that the fact he had offered to swear an oath on the Koran proved his innocence.

However, Serbiyev said: "If in the course of the investigation the involvement of these people is established, then regardless of whether they swear an oath on the Koran or not, they will have to face criminal charges."

Arbi Barayev, leader of a now-disbanded fundamentalist armed band, and field commander Ramzan Akhmadov were issued with summons by the court but failed to show up.

Shamil Basayev, one of the most powerful field commanders in Chechnya and until his resignation earlier this month the republic's prime minister, said Chechen society would "rally around its elected president."

Basayev followed several other senior Chechen figures in blaming Russian special services for the assassination attempt. He rejected an offer from Russian Interior Minister Sergei Stepashin to help in the investigation.

"We are ready to take adequate measures and to repel any attempts at aggression from Moscow," Interfax quoted Basayev as saying.

Basayev, now deputy commander of the Chechen armed forces, said he had ordered transmissions of Russian television stations on Chechen territory to cease as of Friday because he "cannot bear to see those self-satisfied Russian politicians."

"All these Russian politicians talk all sorts of rubbish about what is going on in Chechnya," he said.

Maskhadov press secretary Mairbek Vachagayev was at pains Friday to stress that the Chechen president had not directly blamed Moscow for the attack on him. Vachagayev said certain media in Russia had distorted Maskhadov's statements.

Stepashin said he was satisfied with the explanation. "Neither the Chechens nor Maskhadov accused the Russian services," Stepashin was quoted as saying by NTV television. "It is Basayev. I do not consider his accusations as an argument. ... We will keep working with Aslan Maskhadov."

Since his election last year, Maskhadov has failed to restore the economy of Chechnya, devastated by the 21-month war with Russia, and has been unable to rein in the lawless armed bands operating in the republic. Maskhadov has this month declared a state of emergency and ordered members of the Wahhabite movement to disband and surrender their weapons.

Observers say these measures may have prompted the assassination attempt, though the Russian media claimed Friday that drug barons operating in Chechnya may have been involved.