A remote-controlled bomb gravely wounded Russia's top commander in Chechnya on Friday, provoking vows of retaliation and warnings that the bloodletting that began in the republic 10 months ago may be poised for another escalation.
The attack that left Gen. Anatoly A. Romanov struggling for his life with severe head and abdominal wounds was the second assassination attempt on a senior federal official in the rebel Russian republic in 2 1/2 weeks.
President Boris N. Yeltsin's personal envoy to the rebel southern republic, Oleg I. Lobov, narrowly escaped injury Sept. 20 when a bomb planted on a bridge in the Chechen capital, Grozny, detonated shortly after his motorcade had crossed.
Friday's blast occurred as Romanov's five-vehicle convoy was traveling through Grozny, which was devastated by intensive Russian artillery shelling earlier this year. Russia's Itar-Tass news agency indicated that the explosion was triggered by a remote-controlled device.
The powerful explosion damaged two armored personnel carriers in the convoy, and Russian television footage showed a smashed and twisted heap of metal that had been the jeep in which Romanov was riding.
Romanov was transported out of the volatile Chechen war zone to Vladikavkaz, in the republic of North Ossetia, where a surgical team rushed from Moscow was trying to save his life. Russian media reported his condition as "extremely serious."
A July 30 cease-fire agreement between federal negotiators and representatives of Chechen rebel leader Dzhokar M. Dudayev had been steadily unraveling for weeks, but the blast that wounded Romanov, killed his driver and aide-de-camp and injured nine other servicemen threatened a return to full-scale warfare.
Yeltsin said in a statement issued through his press secretary that the Russian leadership remains committed to the partial agreement on a peaceful settlement, but First Deputy Prime Minister Oleg N. Soskovets acknowledged to journalists in Moscow that "the war is continuing in Chechnya as before" the July peace pact.
Others warned that the brazen attack would prompt retaliation.
"I fear this assassination attempt will be the last straw for Russian soldiers," said Konstantin V. Pleshakov, a prominent domestic political analyst with the USA-Canada Institute. "In retaliation, they will start terrorizing Chechens even more severely than they were before."
Arkady I. Volsky, a top negotiator for the Russian government at peace talks with the Chechen rebels, demanded that the perpetrators of the latest attack on federal forces "be tracked down and severely punished--even to the point of extermination," according to the Interfax news agency.
Romanov, who has served as Moscow's commander of joint forces from the Defense and Interior ministries since late July, had accused Dudayev supporters of planning the unsuccessful attack on Lobov.
Yeltsin ordered federal troops into Chechnya on Dec. 11 to crush an independence movement led by Dudayev.