Top Russians die in Chechnya crash


Monday, 28 January, 2002, 00:53 GMT 



http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/world/europe/newsid_1785000/1785257.stm



Fourteen senior Russian officials, including a deputy

interior minister, have died after a military

helicopter crashed during a flight over the breakaway

republic of Chechnya. It is still unclear whether the

helicopter, carrying General Mikhail Rudchenko - the

man in charge of security in southern Russia -

exploded in mid-air or crashed on landing north-west

of the capital, Grozny. 



There are also conflicting reports on what caused the

crash - with suggestions that the helicopter was

allegedly attacked by Chechen rebels. 



But the Kremlin says it is too early to classify the

crash as a terrorist attack. 



The BBC's Nikolai Gorshkov in Moscow says if confirmed

as a Chechen attack, the incident will be a terrible

blow to Kremlin prestige and the Russian military in

Chechnya. 



Russian forces have frequently come under rebel attack

in Chechnya since the republic was put under Moscow's

full control in October 1999, following a Russian

offensive ordered by President Vladimir Putin - then

Russian prime minister. 



The protracted guerrilla war has already claimed tens

of thousands of lives. 



'Not clear' 



The Russian military said the Mikoyan-8 helicopter

exploded in mid-air over the village of Shelkovskaya

in Nadterechnyy District in late morning (0830 GMT). 



But a military police spokesman in Grozny told the BBC

that it crashed on landing and then exploded. 



The helicopter was on a flight from the military base

at Khankala in Chechnya to Mozdok in the neighbouring

Russian republic of North Ossetia - headquarters of

the Russian forces in the southern Caucasus. 



Russian officials have begun an investigation into the

blast amid suggestions that the helicopter might have

come under rocket attack. 



Investigators at the scene are said to have found

evidence of external damage on the fuselage, which may

point to a possible rocket explosion. 



But the Kremlin's spokesman on Chechnya, Sergey

Yastrzhemsky, said it was too early to say whether the

crash was an act of terrorism by Chechen separatists. 



Bubbling violence 



Our correspondent says the Mi-8 helicopter flies low

and slowly, and has been a preferred target of Chechen

rebels. 



He says the aircraft is so unreliable that it was

banned by the Russian military, with the exception of

Chechen operations. 



The blast came amid reports that six Russian

servicemen had been killed during the previous 24

hours in rebel attacks and mine explosions - the

latest casualties of violence that has continued

unabated since Russian troops re-occupied Chechnya

more than two years ago. 



About 500 people demonstrated in Grozny on Sunday -

coinciding with the fifth anniversary of the election

of Aslan Maskhadov as Chechnya's president. 



Mr Maskhadov was elected at the end of the 1994-1994

war in which Chechen separatists won de facto

independence from Moscow, forcing the Russians to

withdraw. 



But after a controversial and much-criticised campaign

in 1999, Moscow resumed direct control of Chechnya,

branding Mr Maskhadov a "terrorist". 



A first session of peace talks to negotiate an end to

continuing fighting was held last November. 






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