Russia Blasts Chechnya Airport

Hours after Russian police defused a bomb that looked poised to devastate another apartment building, Russian warplanes bombed the airport at Grozny, capital of the breakaway Chechnya republic, on Thursday and destroyed an aircraft, the deputy chief of the airport said.

In Moscow, a spokesman for the Russian air force confirmed the attack, which took place at 12:10 p.m.

He said the Russian warplanes also attacked arms depots at the airport and a radar station believed to have been used by Chechen guerrillas to track Russian aircraft.

Other targets included a fuel dump, an oil-processing plant and an electrical substation in a Grozny suburb, Interfax news agency said. It was not immediately known what damage was done.

Â"They bombed the airport, destroying one plane. A technician, Armenian by nationality, was killed in the attack,Â" said the airport official, Rukman Zakayev.

The attack represented a major escalation in the growing conflict between Russian forces and Islamic militants operating out of Chechnya. The Chechen government, which says it does not support the militants, had warned it would hit back against any Russian attacks on its territory.

Earlier, Russian police said they had found three sugar sacks containing explosives in an apartment block in the Russian city of Ryazan, southeast of Moscow.

They also found detonators and a timing device in the sacks, which had been left in the basement of the 12-storey building. The timer had been set for 5.30 am on Thursday.

Residents of the block became suspicious late on Wednesday when they noticed a car nearby whose license plate was partially covered by a scrap of paper. On the paper somebody had scribbled the regional registration code.

Police evacuated the building and residents spent the night in a local cinema.

Russian officials have pointed an accusatory finger at Chechnya-based Muslim guerrillas for a spate of deadly bombings at Russian apartment buildings. The guerrillas, who are leading a separatist campaign in neighboring Dagestan, have denied involvement in the blasts, which killed nearly 300 people over the last month.

Chechen officials said the Russians had destroyed an Antonov An-2, a small multi-purpose aircraft and the only plane the Chechens have except for President Aslan Maskhadov's official jet, which is now grounded due to a lack of spare parts.

Interfax said that when news of the attack came, the Chechen government was already meeting in emergency session to discuss its armed forces' readiness Â"to rebuff the aggression of the Russian federation.Â"

Russian forces have been bombing what they say are guerrilla bases inside Chechen territory used to launch incursions into neighbouring Dagestan. But they deny Chechen claims that their strikes have damaged villages and killed civilians.

Earlier, Russian warplanes and artillery pounded guerrilla targets elsewhere in Cechnya in an attempt to head off further incursions into the neighbouring North Caucasus region.

Chechnya threw off Russian control during a 1994-96 war but has not been recognized as independent.

Russia is trying to seal off the border with Chechnya and troops took guerrilla fire as they continued fortification works on Thursday, officials said.

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