A suicide bomber caused carnage in Russia's restive North Caucasus region yesterday, killing at least 20 people in the tiny republic of Ingushetia, which borders Chechnya. It was the latest and deadliest in a series of attacks over the past week that have raised questions about whether Moscow is losing control over its southern border regions.
It was about 9am when a minivan packed with explosives smashed into the police station in the town of Nazran and set off a huge blast. Images showed scenes of devastation, with nearby homes also badly damaged and burnt-out cars strewn nearby.
It is believed that police were carrying out a roll call at the time of the explosion, and the human toll of the bombing is unusually high even for a region that is beset by regular violence.
Russia's President, Dmitry Medvedev, announced that he was sacking Ingushetia's interior minister for his failure to prevent the bombing. "This act of terror could have been averted," he said. "The police must protect the people and the police must also be able to defend themselves."
Shootings and attacks on law enforcement officials are a frequent occurrence in this part of Russia, but are usually small-scale incidents. By contrast over 100 people were reported injured in yesterday's blast, with civilians including children who lived in a nearby block of flats among the injured.
The Moscow-installed President of the tiny republic, Yenus-Bek Yevkurov, called the attack "an attempt to destabilise the situation in the republic and create panic". Mr Yevkurov, who was himself seriously injured in a car bomb in June, has only just been discharged from hospital, and last week the republic's construction minister was shot dead.
Last week, gunmen ran amok in Dagestan, a restive, mountainous region that borders Chechnya and the Caspian Sea, with a death toll of nearly 20. In the worst massacre, seven women were killed in a sauna, with unconfirmed reports suggesting that they were prostitutes. Private sauna complexes with prostitutes are widespread in Russia and may have been targeted by militants because of their incompatibility with Islamic values. Additionally, a drive-by shooting at a police road checkpoint killed four, and several other incidents each left one or two police officers dead. Such incidents are also common in Chechnya and Ingushetia.
Much of the violence that plagues the North Caucasus is believed to be part of a vicious battle between local clans in the republics for power and resources. But yesterday's suicide attack bears the hallmarks of the insurgency, which now has little in common with the nationalism-driven Chechen insurgency of the 1990s and has taken on a much more overtly religious ideology, calling for the establishment of an Islamic caliphate in the Caucasus.
"The use of a suicide bomber shows that we are definitely dealing with Islamic terrorism here," said Sergey Markedonov, a leading analyst of the North Caucasus.
Whoever is behind the attacks, they go to show how vulnerable Russia's southern republics are, and that Moscow's policy of installing powerful regional leaders ethnically indigenous to the regions, like Mr Yevkurov, has failed to pacify either the insurgency or the inter-clan fighting.
"With every day that goes by it becomes more and more difficult to call these territories part of the Russian Federation," said Mr Markedonov.
Mr Yevkurov rather surprisingly laid the blame for the attacks on the West, including Britain, which he said wanted to destabilise Russia.
"We can see in whose interest this is – the United States, Great Britain, and Israel," he said.Reuse content