Bombings Jolt Russia, Raising Olympic Fears

Steven Lee Myers, New York Times, December 30, 2013

A deadly suicide bombing at a crowded railroad station in southern Russia on Sunday, followed by a blast in a trolley bus on Monday in the same city, raised the specter of a new wave of terrorism just six weeks before the Winter Olympics in Sochi.

President Vladimir V. Putin’s government has worked to protect the Olympics with some of the most extensive security measures ever imposed for the Games. But the bombings, in Volgograd, underscored the threat the country faces from a radical Islamic insurgency in the North Caucasus that has periodically spilled into the Russian heartland, with deadly results, including several recent attacks.

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Russian officials attributed the explosion on Sunday to a bomb packed with shrapnel, possibly carried in a bag or backpack. It was detonated in the main railroad station in Volgograd, a city 550 miles south of Moscow and 400 miles northeast of Sochi. The bomb blew out windows in the building’s facade and left a horrific scene of carnage at its main entrance. At least 16 people were killed, and nearly three dozen others were wounded, some of them critically, meaning the death toll could still rise.

On Monday morning a second blast struck a trolley bus in the city, killing at least 10 people, according to preliminary reports. Photographs posted by Russian news organizations showed that the force of the blast tore open the bus and shattered windows nearby. At least 10 others were wounded in what officials immediately described as another suicide bombing.

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Within hours of the attack, the authorities blamed a suicide bomber, and cited the gruesome discovery of the severed head of a woman, which they said could aid in identifying her as the suspect. Officials later said they had found a grenade and a pistol, and suggested that the attack might have been carried out by a man and a woman working together.

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The attack was the second suicide bombing in Volgograd in recent months. In October, a woman identified as Naida Asiyalova detonated a vest of explosives aboard a bus in the city, killing herself and six others.

In that case, the authorities said she was linked by marriage to an explosives expert working with an Islamic group in Dagestan, a republic in southern Russia where the police have struggled to suppress a Muslim separatist insurgency. {snip}

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The autonomous republics of the North Caucasus, including Dagestan and Chechnya, have been roiled for nearly two decades by armed insurgencies—complex, ever-shifting conflicts that the International Crisis Group recently called “the most violent in Europe today.” The violence has claimed hundreds of lives this year, prompting the Russian authorities to make extraordinary efforts to keep it from reaching Sochi, a resort city on the Black Sea coast among the foothills of the Caucasus. The city will effectively be locked down starting Jan. 7, with all traffic banned except officially registered vehicles. Visitors to the Olympics, which begin on Feb. 7, will be required to obtain a special pass to enter the region.

With security so tight at the site of the Games, experts have warned that insurgents who want to disrupt the Olympics might turn instead to “softer” targets elsewhere. On Friday, an explosion in a car killed three people in Pyatigorsk, another city in the Caucasus; details of that attack remain sketchy, and it was not clear whether it was related to Sunday’s bombing.

Doku Umarov, the Chechen rebel fighter who now leads a terrorist group known as the Caucasus Emirate, vowed in July to attack in Sochi, calling the Games “satanic.”

“They plan to hold the Olympics on the bones of our ancestors, on the bones of many, many dead Muslims, buried on the territory of our land on the Black Sea,” Mr. Umarov said in a video. He emerged from the ruins of Chechnya’s separatist movement, which was largely defeated by the authorities under Mr. Putin; he has claimed responsibility for two suicide bombings in Moscow in 2010 and 2011.

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