Muscovites fear enemy within

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The Independent Online

It was her last day at work before her summer holiday. Olga Udalova, 18, a secretary at the Vremya-MN newspaper, arrived at the office punctual as ever. Her colleagues were impressed by how she always managed to be on time, although she commuted two-and-a-half hours into work in the morning and two-and-a-half hours home again at night. She was a provincial girl from the town of Voskresensk, trying to make a career in the capital.

It was her last day at work before her summer holiday. Olga Udalova, 18, a secretary at the Vremya-MN newspaper, arrived at the office punctual as ever. Her colleagues were impressed by how she always managed to be on time, although she commuted two-and-a-half hours into work in the morning and two-and-a-half hours home again at night. She was a provincial girl from the town of Voskresensk, trying to make a career in the capital.

At 5.30pm she finished her typing and went down to Pushkin Square to meet her boyfriend. At the height of the rush hour, a bomb ripped through the precinct of kiosks in the underpass. Olga was among seven people killed outright but it was a while before the authorities identified the charred bodies. They showed her black and white photograph on television. She was a pretty, fresh-faced girl.

Muscovites were deeply shocked by Tuesday's explosion, whose death toll has since risen to 11. It brings back memories of last year's shopping mall and apartment block bombings. Is the nightmare beginning again? That is the question on everyone's lips.

As soon as the debris was cleared, the blackened underpass became a shrine. Women brought flowers and icons, men stood drinking shot glasses of vodka in memory of the dead. The Serbsky Psychiatric Institute, which in Soviet times used to give "treatment" to dissidents, reported that scores of distressed people were applying for counselling. But more were queuing at the Sklifasovsky Hospital to donate blood to the victims in the burns unit, the most severely hurt of the 100 injured.

"I am giving my blood because it is the only positive thing I can do," said Lev Markov, a middle-aged family man. "I don't hate the terrorists, I just feel sorry for the victims. A thing like this makes you realise it could happen to any one of us."

Listeners participating in the Silver Rain radio station's phone-in show were less charitable. They mostly assumed that Chechen terrorists were behind the blast and a number favoured a nuclear solution to the problem of the rebellious Muslim region.

While police arrested several suspects of Caucasian ethnic origin, President Vladimir Putin spoke of the importance of keeping an open mind and not branding a whole people as terrorists. His fatherly tone and new-found fairness contrasted sharply with the vows he made last year, on launching the war against Chechnya, to "catch terrorists wherever we find them, to zap them in the toilet if that is where they are".

Some Muscovites thought he was being hypocritical and seeking to undermine their popular mayor Yuri Luzhkov, the only politician to descend into the underpass immediately after the explosion.

Mayor Luzhkov, while stressing that most Chechens were ordinary decent people, was more inclined to see a Chechen connection to the blast.

The guilt of those responsible for last year's apartment block bomb, in which some 300 people died, has never been proved. The Russian authorities blame Chechen terrorists but some Russians suspect their own secret services wanted to create a pretext to send troops back into Chechnya. The new war was initially very popular and helped Mr Putin to win the presidential election this March.

Now he is in power, President Putin has less to benefit from an atmosphere of war fever. However, analysts note that he may be planning to weaken parliament in the autumn and a renewed terrorist threat could give him an excuse to impose stronger personal rule.

The latest bombing succeeded in pushing from the headlines details of a corruption scandal gathering around the Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov. In the same way last year, the public was distracted from allegations of Russian money laundering through the Bank of New York by the dramatic news of the apartment block bombs.

This year, on balance, it seems probable that Chechens were taking revenge for all the death and destruction in their homeland. Chechnya's president, Aslan Maskhadov, denied that his guerrillas were involved in the Pushkin Square attack and indeed they have no record of targeting civilians, only of resisting the Russian military.

But Chechnya's separatist rebels are now divided. The Russian army crowed recently when two groups of rebels apparently started fighting each other in the forests of Chechnya. But defence analyst Pavel Felgenhauer said that Moscow should be worried by this development. "In the Palestinian national movement military setbacks and ensuing political splintering helped to create some of the most ferocious terrorist groups in world history. The same may be happening today in Chechnya: as Maskhadov and other mainstream war lords who historically have disapproved of the use of extreme terrorist tactics lose credence and control, fanatics may be breaking loose."

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