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Fiery Metro Explosion Kills at Least 39

A fiery explosion tore through a crowded metro car traveling between the Avtozavodskaya and Paveletskaya stations on Friday, killing at least 39 people, police said. There were indications Sunday, however, that the initial death toll might be much higher.

President Vladimir Putin blamed the blast on Chechen rebels and suggested that it was an attempt to put pressure on him ahead of the March 14 presidential election, which he is expected to win.

"I do not rule out that this could be used both in debates taking place in the presidential election and as a lever to put pressure on the current head of state," he said.

The explosion occurred at 8:32 a.m. in the second car of a train heading north toward the city center. The force of the blast caused the car to swell and tore a hole in its roof, eyewitnesses said.

Mayor Yury Luzhkov, who cut short a trip to the United States to return to Moscow, said the explosive device apparently detonated 50 centimeters above the floor, indicating that it might have been in a bag held by a suicide bomber or strapped to his or her body.

Luzhkov dismissed reports that the death toll might be much higher than 39. "Judging by the evidence we have, including the fragments of people who were killed, we have no reason to believe that the number of those killed is significantly higher," he said Saturday after visiting the Sklifosovsky hospital in northeastern Moscow, where most of the injured passengers were hospitalized, Interfax reported.

But a funeral home official familiar with the situation, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Saturday that at least 76 people had died. Kommersant, citing an unidentified paramedic, reported Saturday that emergency workers found at least 60 bodies and the body fragments of at least 60 more people.

Only 23 bodies have been identified so far, Deputy Moscow Prosecutor Vladimir Yudin said Sunday.

"Unfortunately, we have a lot of body parts and this complicates the identification process," Yudin was quoted by Interfax as saying.

The identities of the dead were not released Sunday.

Among the injured are 36 men and 68 women -- mostly in their 20s and 30s -- and a child of 9 or 10 years old, according media to reports.

Of the more than 140 injured, 105 remained in the hospital Sunday, many suffering carbon monoxide poisoning and concussions. Thirty-five were in serious condition with severe burns and broken bones. At least two of the injured are foreigners, Ion Mandadzhy, 17, and his brother Sergei, 19, Izvestia said.

A standard metro car holds up to 100 people, but in rush hour the number might grow to 150, Izvestia said. A train typically consists of eight cars. It was not clear how many cars were on Friday's train.

The train's driver, Vladimir Gorelov, said the explosion triggered an automatic system that slowed down and stopped the train, Kommersant reported. Gorelov said he was not immediately able to contact metro traffic controllers because the train's telephone line went down. So he got out of the train and asked controllers via a telephone line in the tunnel to switch off electricity to the tracks. After getting confirmation that the power had been turned off, he opened the train's doors.

Some passengers said, however, that they had pried the doors open themselves.

Still, Gorelov said there was no panic and the passengers behaved calmly.

Most of them headed back to Avtozavodskaya, some 300 meters away, while those in the first car had to walk about 2 kilometers to Paveletskaya because the exploded car blocked their path, police said.

Police cordoned off Avtozavodskaya for most of Friday while rescuers evacuated the injured and removed bodies. Ambulances crowded around the exit to take the injured to hospitals.

Avtozavodskaya, located in the south of the city, is just a five-minute drive from the Dubrovka theater, where Chechen rebels took hundreds of people hostage in 2002.

"It was a terrorist act. This is a fact," Moscow police chief Vladimir Pronin said as he climbed into his car after reviewing the scene at Avtozavodskaya on Friday.

Investigators believe the blast was caused by an explosive device containing 3 to 5 kilograms of TNT.

It was unclear Sunday how the bomb was set off.

The bomb did not contain nuts and ball bearings -- homemade shrapnel meant to increase the force of the blast and used in suicide bombings in Moscow last year, Deputy Moscow Prosecutor Vladimir Yudin said.

He said explosives experts Sunday made some progress toward identifying the type of explosive used but refused to elaborate.

He said that while investigators were studying the possibility that the explosion was accidental, they were focusing on the theory that Chechen rebels were responsible.

"By all appearances that is the case," Yudin said.

Putin said Friday that he had no doubt that Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov was behind the explosion -- an allegation that Maskhadov's envoy Akhmed Zakayev denied.

Police on Sunday were searching for a man of Caucasus descent and aged about 40. They released a composite sketch of the suspect.

Two men who fit the description of the suspect were detained in Moscow on Saturday but later released, police spokesman Kirill Mazurin said.

Luzhkov said police were looking for a total of three suspects. He did not elaborate.

Kommersant also reported there were three suspects: a man aged 40 of Caucasus descent and two younger women wearing black who bought metro tickets at Avtozavodskaya. A ticket office cashier told the newspaper that the man paid for the tickets and then snapped at her, "You are in for a holiday."

Interfax earlier reported that police have a videotape of a possible female suicide bomber and an accomplice standing on the platform before boarding the train.

Prosecutors are questioning survivors and studying evidence collected at the scene as well as video surveillance tapes for clues, Moscow Prosecutor Anatoly Zuyev said.

Investigators said it would be difficult to determine whether there had been a suicide bomber and how the explosive was detonated, Kommersant reported. Many melted CD players, cellphones and hand-held games are scattered around the exploded car, and any of them could have been used to set off the bomb, they said.

The force of the explosion in the confined space of the car and surrounding tunnel probably disintegrated any bomber "to molecules," Kommersant said.

Moscow authorities on Monday will start handing out a compensation of 100,000 rubles to the families of those who died in the blast and 50,000 rubles to those who were hospitalized. Those who suffered minor injuries will get 3,000 rubles.

City Hall declared Monday a day of mourning. Funerals for those killed will be held Monday.

A fire broke out under a metro car at the Leninsky Prospekt station Sunday evening but was quickly extinguished, Interfax said. No injuries were reported.

Officials blamed the fire on an unspecified technical malfunction.

...Blast Stokes Nationalist Rhetoric

Shocked reaction to Friday's metro bombing is strengthening voices calling for a crackdown on ethnic minorities in the capital and a toughening of state power as the influence of nationalist and hawkish forces rises.

In one of the strongest reactions to the blast, Dmitry Rogozin, co-leader of the populist-nationalist Rodina bloc, called for the declaration of a state of emergency and laid the blame for the attack squarely at the feet of "ethnic crime."

"It is clear that this terrorist act was an attempt to undermine the power of the state in the country," Rogozin said Friday, Interfax reported. "This was committed on the eve of the presidential elections and the reaction to it should be the harshest.

"The enemy is here, within," he said. "This is ethnic crime, which is supporting terrorists arriving in Moscow, which owns property in Moscow and is imposing its will on the authorities. This ethnic crime is behaving insolently and should get the harshest response."

Moscow has been the target of a string of violent terrorist attacks ever since a series of apartment bombings in the capital in 1999 triggered the second war in Chechnya. Chechen terrorists have been seen to be behind most of the attacks. There is a large Chechen diaspora in Moscow.

Rogozin's Rodina bloc surged into the State Duma with a surprisingly strong showing in this December's parliamentary elections on a nationalist and anti-big business ticket. The campaign tapped into a rich vein of ethnic resentment as well as an ideological vacuum left by the collapse of communism and the failure of liberal market reforms to boost living standards for the majority.

The bloc joined Vladimir Zhirinovsky's nationalist Liberal Democratic Party, which also boosted its standing in the Duma, to give nationalist forces nearly 20 percent of all seats. The rise in influence of nationalist factions comes as forces from the security services grow in power under former KGB official President Vladimir Putin.

On Friday, Zhirinovsky, too, called for all immigrants from the Caucasus regions to be deported from the capital. Although he stopped short of Rogozin's calls for sweeping police powers under a state of emergency, he called for the introduction of night patrols and, in some cases, curfews, Interfax reported.

Even though Rogozin and Zhirinovsky had the most extreme reactions to the blast, analysts said the growing voice of nationalist forces in the country's political life could embolden leaders to take tougher action.

"The situation in the country and the results of the Duma elections could give [Moscow Mayor Yury] Luzhkov and other leaders carte blanche to introduce tougher measures in pushing out migrants and in increasing police powers," said Yevgeny Volk, political analyst at the Heritage Foundation.

On Saturday, Luzhkov was already gearing up for action. He said the city government was going to tighten measures against illegal migration into the capital. The heads of the city's law enforcement agencies decided at a meeting Saturday "to sharply and powerfully strengthen the work [of officials] that decide who are illegal guests," he said, Interfax reported.

He said his government planned to "raise the question of strengthening the registration regime" in the capital. Moscow already has one of the toughest registration systems for non-residents in the world.

Luzhkov has announced similar measures in the wake of other terrorist acts. Following the Dubrovka theater siege in fall 2002, Chechens registered as living in the capital were rounded up for questioning. Analysts said the new political climate could push him even further this time to target ethnic groups in the city, but they doubted such measures would have much effect.

Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov, the former interior minister, also called for greater police powers. He said more funds should be disbursed to the security services so that better security equipment could be installed in places where a lot of people congregate, such as the metro. He joined other deputies in calling for more powers to be granted to the security services, but stopped short of calling for a state of emergency.

Analysts said it was unlikely Rogozin's call for a state of emergency would find any greater resonance, but they said moves to beef up security could strengthen the hand of those calling for tougher authoritarian measures.

"Terrorism is becoming an element of everyday life in Russia, just like in Israel," said Lilia Shevtsova, political analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center. "This can be used to strengthen totalitarian tendencies. This is much more of a threat."

She said the Kremlin would seek to keep the lid on nationalists like Rogozin because growing nationalist sentiment could ultimately provide an even bigger threat to Putin's power base.

"The Kremlin already let the genie out of the bottle by allowing Rogozin and Rodina into the elections, but it is not in Putin's interests to play further with this. It could give rise to a nationalist leader who could be a threat to Putin," Shevtsova said.

"Despite the Chechen war and despite the regular terrorist acts, nationalism is still not a dominant part of the Russian mentality," she said. "It is possible to stop nationalism in its tracks as a dominant ideology as long as the Kremlin does not force it to the top."

Kremlin-connected political analyst Sergei Markov said it was likely Rogozin had taken things too far. "His reaction was hysterical," he said. "It will earn him points among his nationalist audience, but it will lead to a worsening of his relations with the Kremlin. It's the Kremlin that's going to have to clean up after him."

Later on Friday, Rogozin took the rhetoric even further in calling for the reintroduction of the death penalty. Fellow Rodina co-leader Sergei Glazyev joined him.

Zhirinovsky and other politicians of almost all political stripes lashed out at law enforcement agencies for failing to prevent the latest terrorist act.

Irina Khakamada of the Union of Right Forces, who is running as an opposition candidate in March's election, said the work of the security services was ineffective even though they have called the fight against terrorism their top priority.

"Why after a whole series of terrorist acts has nobody from the security services been fired?" she asked, Interfax reported.

Zhirinovsky was asking the same questions and suggested he would make a great new chief of police.

Khakamada was joined by fellow Union of Right Forces co-leader Boris Nemtsov in blaming the Kremlin's policies in Chechnya for the latest attack.

"The latest terrorist act comes against the backdrop of the start of the election campaign and is without a doubt connected to the unsolved problem of Chechnya, whatever people say about the legitimacy of the new regime," Khakamada said, Interfax reported.

In an effort to create at least the semblance of peace in the republic, presidential elections were held in Chechnya last year in which pro-Kremlin candidate Akhmad Kadyrov won a sweeping majority. Outbreaks of fighting between federal troops and rebels, however, occur almost daily.

"People understand that Kadyrov's rule will not bring them peace," Khakamada said.

Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov also laid the blame for the attack at the feet of the Putin administration. He warned that Putin's own policies were unleashing a wave of extremism.

In a statement, he called on the country's leadership "to sharply increase the effectiveness of its battle against terrorism and at the same time begin to pull out the roots of extremism, which are hiding in [the leadership's] own economic and social policies," Interfax reported.

As Russia's elite lashed out at the failures of its own security forces, world leaders from U.S. President George W. Bush to British Prime Minister Tony Blair and French President Jacques Chirac were quick to send their condolences.

"No cause ever justifies the killing of innocent life," Bush said in a statement. "The United States stands with Russia in opposing terrorist acts and in our determination to bring the perpetrators to justice."

U.S. Ambassador to Moscow Alexander Vershbow condemned the bombing as "a cowardly attack."

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan also sent his condolences. "Once again the world has become a witness to the death of dozens and the wounding of even more innocent people, who were just taking their daily trip in an overfilled metro car," he said in a statement.

(The Moscow Times 9.ii.04)

 
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