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Monday, 28 January, 2002, 00:53 GMT
Top Russians die in Chechnya crash
Russian helicopter taking off
Fighting has continued unabated in Chechnya
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 Mi-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 reason behind the explosion on board the helicopter has not yet been established

Major General Sergey Babkin
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.

Chechen leader Aslan Maskhadov
Moscow recognised Aslan Maskhadov in 1997, then branded him a 'terrorist'
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.

The BBC's Nikolai Gorshkov
"There are conflicting reports about the cause of the crash"
See also:

18 Jan 02 | Europe
UN backs Chechen president
10 Jan 02 | Europe
Russia hunts Chechen kingpin
25 Nov 01 | Media reports
War-hit Chechen paper soldiers on
18 Nov 01 | Europe
Moscow opens Chechnya peace talks
15 Nov 01 | Europe
Russia tries Chechen warlord
28 Sep 01 | Europe
Analysis: New rules in Chechnya
06 Sep 01 | Europe
Chechnya's decade of disaster
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