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AT LEAST 23 KILLED AS BLAST HITS RUSSIAN TROOP BUILDING

SHARE AT LEAST 23 KILLED AS BLAST HITS RUSSIAN TROOP BUILDING

A building housing Russian soldiers and their families near Chechnya collapsed Saturday in a powerful bomb blast, killing up to 23 people.

Rescue workers heard cries for help coming from under the debris of the nine-story building. About 50 people were missing and feared trapped.Officials said the explosion was likely caused by one or more bombs in the basement of the build-ing in Kaspyisk, a town in Dagestan, a southern Russian republic neighboring Chechnya.

Up to 130 people, most of them Russian border guard officers and their families, lived in the apartment house.

Russian national security chief Ivan Rybkin blamed the blast on forces opposed to the peace agreements in separatist Chechnya. Other officials suspected smugglers angered by border guards' efforts to shut down their trade.

The number of dead was unclear.

The ITAR-Tass and Interfax news agencies, quoting local officials from the Federal Security Service, said 23 bodies had been pulled from the debris by late Saturday morning.

But Interfax said other government agencies in Dagestan were reporting that only up to nine people were killed.

In Moscow, the Ministry for Emergency Situations confirmed seven deaths and seven hospitalizations.

Marina Rykhlina, a ministry spokeswoman, said the blast was in the middle part of the three-wing building. "The entire section collapsed," she said.

Gen. Viktor Ruzlyavev, commander of border troops in the Caucasus region, said at least two bombs containing up to 55 pounds of TNT were planted in the basement.

"This blast is aimed against the Russian border guards, against their presence in Dagestan," Ruzlyayev told Interfax.

A border guard spokesman, Col. Mikhail Andreyev, said investigators had not ruled out a Chechen connection but were looking into other possibilities, including mafia involvement.

He said border guards have repeatedly faces threats from smugglers. The troops have seized about 220 pounds of sturgeon caviar and a large amount of hard currency in recent months. Dagestan is on the shores of the Caspian Sea.

Viktor Ilyukhin, the head of parliament's security committee, blamed the blast on Chechen separatists. He said it showed that Chechen leaders cannot control the situation in the republic that fought a 21-month war for independence with Russia.

Dagestan, an ethnic patchwork of a republic that lies between Chechnya and the Caspian Sea, has been the stage for previous acts of terrorism by Chechen rebels seeking full independence from Moscow.

Although no one was willing to rule out a Chechen connection, investigators told Russian reporters at the scene that they were primarily pursuing other leads, including indications that the blast was mob-related.

Powerful gangs control arms and drug smuggling into Russia, and any attempt by federal border authorities to curb those illegal activities could have inspired an act of retaliation - even one as appalling as Saturday's attack.