The Russian security service has given its most detailed account yet of the events that lead to the bombings in Moscow last year which killed 223 people and won popular backing for the invasion of Chechnya.
Senior officers in the FSB security service said yesterday that they had traced how the explosives, disguised as sugar, were brought to Moscow in a Mercedes truck before being placed in the apartment buildings where the bombers had rented space.
The FSB had remained largely silent about the progress of their investigation. This is despite an increasing number of reports in the Russian and foreign press, prompted by a story in The Independent, suggesting that the explosions had been orchestrated by the security services as a pretext to launch the war in Chechnya. The architect of the war, the acting president Vladimir Putin, is expected to win the presidential election on 26 March.
Alexander Shagako, first deputy head of the FSB's research department, said the explosives, a mixture of aluminium powder and ammonium nitrate, came from a bomb factory in central Chechnya. The FSB said that the operation was carefully planned, with the organisers carrying forged documents. It added that they were all in Chechnya apart from Ruslan Magayayev, in whose truck traces of explosives were found, who was arrested in November and is now in prison in Moscow.
Nikolai Sapozhkov, a senior FSB officer, said the investigation was not over "because it is not established so far if these people were the masterminds or just staged the act of terrorism". Mr Putin has repeatedly said it is an established fact that Chechen leaders were behind the bombings.
Stories in the Russian press have implicated both the FSB and the GRU military intelligence in the bombings, suggesting they were orchestrated from Moscow but carried out by groups from Chechnya. The GRU has had close links with the most militantly Islamic Chechen leaders since it supported them when they fought in a Russian-backedrebellion in Georgia in the early Nineties.
In a curious twist to the story, the liberal bi-weekly Novaya Gazeta published an investigation on Monday into a bomb discovered in the city of Ryazan last year. The FSB eventually said it had planted the bomb but that it was a fake and the incident was part of a training exercise. Local eyewitnesses said the timer and explosives were real.
Novaya Gazeta said it had found a paratrooper, "Alexei P", who, with a friend, discovered the explosives in sacks marked as containing sugar. They opened a sack in order to put some of the sugar in their tea but when they sipped the tea it tasted strange. When tested, the "sugar" turned out to be an explosive. The soldiers were reprimanded by the FSB for "exposing state secrets" and told to forget what they had uncovered.
On Wednesday,Novaya Gazeta found that somebody had broken into its computer network two hours before the paper went to press and erased the whole of yesterday's issue. In a statement, the editorial board of the paper said: "The editors do not rule out the possibility that the obsequious entourage of the country's leaders is ready to display its loyalty using even this method."
The sensitivity of Mr Putin's government to any criticism of its policy in Chechnya is underlined by a new order from the Press Ministry banning the media from quoting Chechen rebel leaders. Mikhail Lesin, the Press Minister, said: "Under the law on fighting terrorism, the mass media have no right to give terrorists and people suspected of terrorism an opportunity to advertise themselves."
In what appeared to be a criticism of Andrei Babitsky, the Radio Liberty journalist arrested in January, Mr Lesin also denounced journalists who with "impudent bravado have mocked the Russian army and the Russian state".