Bomber strikes Russian railway station
MOSCOW — A suicide bomber struck a busy railway station on Sunday in southern Russia, killing at least 15 people and wounding dozens more, officials said.
No one claimed responsibility for the bombing in Volgograd, but it occurred several months after Chechen rebel leader Doku Umarov called for attacks against civilian targets in Russia, including the Sochi Games.
Suicide bombings have rocked Russia for years, but many have been contained to the North Caucasus, the center of an insurgency seeking an Islamist state in the region. Until recently, Volgograd was not a typical target, but the city — formerly known as Stalingrad — has been struck twice in two months, suggesting militants might be using the transportation hub as a way of showing their reach outside their restive region.
Volgograd, which is close to volatile Caucasus provinces, is 550 miles south of Moscow and about 400 miles northeast of Sochi, a Black Sea resort flanked by the North Caucasus Mountains.
The bombing highlights the daunting security challenge Russia will face in fulfilling its pledge to make the February's Olympic Games in Sochi the “safest Olympics in history.”
The government has deployed tens of thousands of soldiers, police and other security personnel to protect the games.
Through the day, officials issued conflicting statements on casualties. They said that the suspected bomber was a woman, then reversed themselves and said the attacker might have been a man.
The Interfax news agency quoted unidentified law enforcement agents as saying that footage taken by surveillance cameras indicated that the bomber was a man. It reported that it was further proved by a torn male finger, ringed by a hand grenade safety pin, that was found at the site of the explosion.
The bomber detonated explosives just beyond the station's main entrance when a police sergeant became suspicious and rushed forward to check the ID, officials said. The officer was killed by the blast, and several police officers were wounded.
“When the suicide bomber saw a policeman near a metal detector, she became nervous and set off her explosive device,” Vladimir Markin, spokesman for the nation's top investigative agency, said in a statement earlier in the day. He added that the bomb contained about 22 pounds of TNT and was rigged with shrapnel.
Markin later told Interfax that the attacker could have been a man, but added that the investigation was ongoing.
Markin argued that security controls prevented a far greater number of casualties at the station, which was packed with people at a time when several trains were delayed.
About 40 were hospitalized, many in grave condition.
Security camera images broadcast by Rossiya 24 television showed the moment of explosion, a bright orange flash inside the station behind the main gate, followed by plumes of smoke.
In October, a female suicide bomber blew herself up on a city bus in Volgograd, killing six people and injuring about 30. Officials said that attacker came from the province of Dagestan, which has become the center of the Islamist insurgency that has spread across the region after two separatist wars in Chechnya.
Chechnya has become more stable under the grip of Moscow-backed strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, who incorporated many of the former rebels into his feared security force. But in Dagestan, the province between Chechnya and the Caspian Sea, Islamic insurgents who declared an intention to carve out an Islamic state in the region mount near daily attacks on police and other officials.
Rights groups say that authorities' tough response — which includes arbitrary arrests, torture and killings of terror suspects — has fueled the rebellion.
Extensive plan in place
The International Olympics Committee expressed its condolences over the bombing and said it was confident of Russia's security preparation for the games.
“At the Olympics, security is the responsibility of the local authorities, and we have no doubt that the Russian authorities will be up to the task,” it said in a statement.
Russian authorities have introduced some of the most extensive identity checks and sweeping security measures ever seen at an international sports event.
Anyone who wants to attend the games, which open on Feb. 7, will have to buy a ticket online from the organizers and obtain a “spectator pass” for access. Doing so will require the buyer to provide passport details and contacts that will allow the authorities to screen all visitors and check their identities upon arrival.
The security zone around Sochi stretches about 60 miles along the Black Sea coast and up to 25 miles inland.
Russian forces include special troops to patrol the forested mountains towering over the resort, drones to keep constant watch over Olympic facilities and speed boats to patrol the coast.
The security plan includes a ban on cars from outside the zone from a month before the games until a month after they end.
In Washington, the State Department condemned the bombing and said the United States stands “in solidarity with the Russian people.”