Moscow fears two suicide bombers at large

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Fears were growing yesterday that two "black widows" - female Chechen suicide bombers - were on the loose in Moscow, less than a week after two passenger airliners were blown out of the sky.

Fears were growing yesterday that two "black widows" - female Chechen suicide bombers - were on the loose in Moscow, less than a week after two passenger airliners were blown out of the sky.

The two prime suspects in last week's explosions have been identified as the Chechens Amant Nagaeva and Satsita Dzhebirkhanova. Both had lost brothers in Chechnya's hostilities with Russia. Remains of the women's bodies were found in the wreckage of both planes, along with traces of a high explosive favoured by Chechen separatists. Eighty-nine people died in the almost simultaneous explosions.

The daily Izvestia reported yesterday that the two women did not travel to Moscow alone. The newspaper said that they had come with two other Chechen women with whom they had been living in Grozny, Chechnya's capital, Maryam Taburova and Roza Nagaeva (Amant's sister).

All four women were last seen taking a bus from Dagestan to an unknown destination on 22 August, two days before the planes were blown up. All were either divorced or single, and worked as market traders in Grozny's central market, selling children's clothes, which they obtained on monthly shuttle trips to Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan.

A photograph of Ms Taburova was published on Izvestia's front page yesterday under the chilling headline: "Another two suicide bombers."

The paper interviewed the two dead women's relatives in Chechnya, who suggested that they had been murdered and their passports used by real suicide bombers. Izvestia agreed that there were only two possibilities; that the four were genuine suicide bombers controlled by terrorists in Baku, or that their identities had been stolen by Baku-based terrorists who had murdered them.

The truth might emerge, it added, when the gruesome remains of Amant and Satsita are identified by their relatives. The populist newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda published a grim photograph of Amant's headless, skinless corpse yesterday, which was barely recognisable as a human being. It claimed investigators had found a note in Arabic among her personal effects reading "Allah Akbar!" or "Allah is Great", the traditional rallying cry of Chechen separatist fighters.

Investigators have said they may need as much as a month and a half to piece together a full picture of exactly how and why the two planes were targeted.

There was confusion yesterday over the treatment that Russian airliners will receive in American airspace. The Washington Post has reported that they will be escorted by fighter jets primed to shoot them down if they are hijacked, but the Russian foreign ministry said yesterday that it had received no such official notification.

In Chechnya, meanwhile, the Kremlin's handpicked candidate was confirmed to have won the republic's presidential elections by a landslide. Alu Alkhanov, 47, a former policeman, was shown to have captured almost 74 per cent of the vote. His election was controversial, however. Mr Alkhanov's main challenger was barred from running on a technicality, Mr Alkhanovhad the media and the Kremlin on his side and at least two of his rivals complained of electoral irregularities.

The British Foreign Office minister Bill Rammell said: "We have serious concerns about the way these elections have been conducted ... another opportunity has been missed to build up the political process. Nevertheless, we hope Mr Alkhanov and the Russian authorities will now try to advance reconciliation in Chechnya."