A team of suicide-bombers, three of them women, struck a crowded commuter train in southern Russia yesterday, killing at least 40 people and injuring almost 200, including many students. The attack, in an area close to the border with the breakaway region of Chechnya, came two days before Russians vote for a new national parliament.
President Putin described the bombing as "a deliberate attempt to destabilise the country before the elections". The Justice Minister, Yuri Chaika, lost no time in linking the attack with "Chechen militants".
Russian television showed graphic scenes of the carnage. Rescuers described how they found the second carriage of the rush-hour train blown apart, with the two mangled halves overturned by the force of the explosion.
Of the dead, 34 were killed outright and six died in hospital. Some 20 of the injured were described as in a "serious condition" last night.
The bombers struck the train, which was travelling between Kislovodsk and Mineralnye Vody, half a mile outside the resort town of Yessentuki. They chose the height of the morning rush-hour, 7.42am, when the train was packed. Shown on television reporting to a grave-looking President Putin, the director of the Russian security services, Nikolai Patrushev, said initial reports suggested a team of at least four people was responsible: a male suicide bomber and three female accomplices. The man was in the carriage - the second from the front of the train - and was blown to pieces in the explosion. His remains have been recovered.
Two of the women had jumped from the train just before the explosion; the third was seriously injured and may not survive. Mr Patrushev said that grenades attached to the man suggested that he intended to die in the explosion. He said others were also involved, posted in several look-out cars along the route of the train.
Investigators subsequently said that a bomb appeared to have been left under a seat. A railway official quoted them as saying it must have contained 66lb of TNT.
The regions of southern Russia bordering Chechnya have been subject to repeated attacks since President Putin renewed Russia's war on Chechen separatists in 1999. But this was the most destructive since an attack on a hospital at the town of Mozdok in August, in which 50 died.
Bombers had previously struck the same railway line in September, killing four people. That attack coincided with the start of Russia's parliamentary election campaign and a visit by President Putin to nearby Rostov-on-Don.
Speaking from the Kremlin shortly after reports of yesterday's attack reached Moscow, Mr Putin said that it served as a reminder that international terrorism was a serious threat to Russia. It was, he said, "a cruel, fickle and dangerous enemy". Instructions were given for security to be tightened at all Moscow railway stations and at other possible targets around the country, such as power stations and chemical plants.
The latest attack drew ferocious condemnation from the Interior Minister, Boris Gryzlov, who is the leader of United Russia, the party which supports President Putin and which is certain to win the largest number of votes in Sunday's election.
Addressing a campaign meeting of war veterans, he promised to hunt down those responsible behind the explosion. "The ground will burn under their feet. These animals will never be able to feel safe," he said.
While politicians - especially those who are hoping to win another term on Sunday - and conservative commentators in Moscow used similar language to deplore the attack, observers said that it was unlikely to affect the outcome of the election. They acknowledged, however, that it might strengthen the already strong Russian patriotic and law-and-order vote in the regions bordering Chechnya.
Its political impact on the rest of Russia, especially Moscow, they said, would be minimal compared with the fall-out from the theatre siege in October 2002, which took place in central Moscow and cost more than 100 lives - most of them from the effects of gas piped in by the Russian military to end the siege - or the explosions at two Moscow blocks of flats before the last presidential election.Reuse content