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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Police Deaths Hit Heartland Hard




CHELYABINSK, Ural Mountains -- A family stands sobbing, holding candles and a photo over an open casket in the crumbling stucco Palace of Culture at the Chelyabinsk Tractor Factory, transformed into a makeshift funeral hall.


A second casket next to it is closed, the remains too gruesome to display.


Authorities in this smokestack city in the industrial heartland have been forced to commandeer two cinemas across town for ceremonies to pay their respects to some of their men killed in a huge blast in Chechnya.


More than 20 police were killed and over 40 injured in the largest of a series of suicide-bomb attacks in Argun on Sunday. Most were members of the crack OMON police force from Chelyabinsk and outlying towns.


But despite the public grief and solidarity, there was no word of doubt among the mourners that President Vladimir Putin was right to pursue the war against Chechen separatists. Mounting losses and a long campaign have failed to turn the tide of public support.


"You cannot negotiate with those people," said Sergei Ivanov, a policeman from a district where one of the victims worked before being sent to Chechnya.


"How long did they fight in Northern Ireland, 30 years?", Ivanov said. "We've only been fighting for five or six. We can do this for decades more."


Survivors from the blast have begun to return, turning the main hospital into the scene of tearful reunions.


Yulia has a smudge of blue iodine on her cheek from touching her husband Andrei's face, which is covered with cuts. She gently fiddles with the buttons on his pink-striped hospital pajamas.


"It was terrible. We had no idea if he survived. Only this morning they called and said he had been brought here," she said.


The city hospital sent a team of doctors to Chechnya in the immediate aftermath of the blast, only to fly them back when it became clear the wounded would be airlifted home.


"You cannot surprise us with any kind of wound. But the sheer numbers f this is something we have never faced before," said acting head doctor Viktor Kuprenko.


But the city has rallied. Local radio has called for blood donors. Governor Pyotr Syomin declared Wednesday and Thursday days of mourning.


Putin has sent condolences to the victims' families but has made almost no public comment on the bombings.


General Viktor Kazantsev, former commander in Chechnya and now Putin's representative in the North Caucasus, said they were "the last attempts of the bandits to show that they still exist and to try and frighten us."


But the troops are far from securing control over parts of Chechnya's southern mountains, where commanders Shamil Basayev and Khattab are believed to be directing operations.


The rebels said they has attacked OMON police base with grenade launchers near the northern village of Shelkovskaya. Their website Kavkaz.org reported an attack on a military column in Gudermes on Tuesday night.