A suicide bomber posing as a journalist blew herself up and killed more than a dozen people at a Muslim religious ceremony Wednesday in Chechnya, authorities said.
It was the second major terrorist bombing in Chechnya this week. On Monday, a suicide truck-bomb attack on a government compound in Znamenskoye left 59 dead.
Wednesday’s attack -- blamed on separatist rebels -- was an apparent assassination attempt against the head of the Moscow-backed Chechen government, Akhmad Kadyrov, who was not injured. Four of his bodyguards were reported among the dead.
“There are no doubts that the terrorist attack was designed to physically eliminate Kadyrov,” Chechen Deputy Prime Minister Movsar Khamidov told the Interfax news agency. He said the bomb went off near the podium where Kadyrov had been addressing a crowd of 15,000 in the village of Ilaskhan-Yurt, known in Russian as Belorechye.
“The attack harmed the people standing right near him,” Khamidov said. “We cannot rule out that the woman who was approaching Kadyrov felt that people noticed her and set the bomb off before she was caught.”
Russian television showed the scene after the attack, with scattered bodies covered by sheets or blankets. Chechen Prosecutor Vladimir Kravchenko said on Russian NTV that the bomber wore a special belt containing the equivalent of about one pound of TNT.
But Chechen Interior Minister Alu Alkhanov said authorities were not sure how the bomb was carried. “The explosive device, in our opinion, was hidden either directly on her or inside the so-called correspondent’s video camera,” he said.
The attack came as Secretary of State Colin L. Powell was in Moscow for talks with President Vladimir V. Putin and Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov.
Powell arrived from Saudi Arabia, where at least 34 people were killed Monday in bombings that targeted three compounds housing Americans and other foreigners.
“We have again been confronted with manifestations of terrorism,” Putin said grimly when greeting Powell, “the terrorist act in Saudi Arabia and two terrorist acts in Chechnya. The latest took place today.”
Ivanov said the attacks showed the need for international cooperation against global terrorism. Moscow has tried hard to portray the conflict in Chechnya as a battle against foreign-instigated terror, while critics of Russian policy argue that the conflict is mainly an effort to suppress Chechen desires for independence.
Chechens exercised self-rule in their Caucasus republic after defeating Russian troops in a 1994-96 war. Russian forces returned in 1999 and have fought guerrillas since.
A second woman with explosives strapped to her body was killed in Wednesday’s attack, but her bomb did not go off, Kravchenko told Interfax. He identified the women as Shahidat Shahbulatova, about 46, and Sulai Abdurzakova, about 52, but said there was some confusion about the exact names.
The two had been allowed to approach the podium -- where most of the republic’s pro-Moscow leaders were assembled -- after claiming to be reporters, authorities said.
Kadyrov had just conducted a midday prayer, district head Akhmad Abastov told Interfax. “There were no women nearby at that moment as women and men pray separately,” he said. “When Kadyrov finished the prayer and people just stood talking, a woman quietly approached the group and an explosion ripped through the air.”
Among those killed were four of Kadyrov’s bodyguards, who had shielded him, Kravchenko said.
“The explosion itself killed seven people right at the scene, including the two female suicide bombers,” Chechen Health Minister Shahid Akhmadov told Interfax. “The other eight died in the hospital.” Another 145 people were injured, 45 of them seriously, Akhmadov said. Other reports of death tolls varied slightly.
The Chechen Interior Ministry initially identified the bomber as Shahida Baimuradova, 46, and claimed to have intelligence information that she was a member of a separatist insurgent group headed by Shamil Basayev, Interfax reported. Officials said Basayev was killed in 1999.
It appeared that authorities were referring to the same 46-year-old woman but with different renderings of her name.