Wreckage of Russian jet 'has traces of explosives'

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The Independent Online

Tell-tale traces of an explosive said to be favoured by Chechen rebels were found amid the wreckage of one of the two Russian airliners that broke up in midair last Tuesday as the authorities finally conceded that the catastrophe had all the hallmarks of a terrorist attack.

Tell-tale traces of an explosive said to be favoured by Chechen rebels were found amid the wreckage of one of the two Russian airliners that broke up in midair last Tuesday as the authorities finally conceded that the catastrophe had all the hallmarks of a terrorist attack.

Performing a humiliating U-turn on the subject, the FSB (the security service) said at least one of the crashes was "a terrorist act" and that it had identified a number of people who may have had a hand in the attacks which killed 89 people.

The background of two suspicious women with Chechen surnames who travelled on either plane is being urgently investigated. The breakthrough came as an obscure Islamist group called the Islambouli Brigade assumed responsibility for the atrocity, claiming it had placed five suicide bombers on each plane to punish Russia for its unofficial war in Chechnya.

The group's authenticity and that of its claim could not immediately be confirmed.

The revelation that the air disaster was an act of terror linked to the breakaway republic is what the public and the media had been waiting for, however, and is likely to bring about an escalation of an already tense situation in Chechnya which goes to the polls to elect a new president on Sunday.

The "clincher" was the discovery of traces of an explosive called hexogen in the wreckage of one of the planes, which had been bound for the Black Sea resort of Sochi, where President Vladimir Putin had been holidaying at the time. Normally used as an explosive element in artillery shells and torpedoes, the Russian security forces view it as the archetypal Chechen calling card.

It was used in the 1999 destruction of apartment blocks in three Russian cities, which claimed the lives of more than 200 people.

Sergei Ignachenko, an FSB spokesman, said: "A study of the fragments of the TU-154 aircraft found traces of an explosive substance. A tentative analysis indicates that it is hexagon. In the course of the investigation we have obtained information allowing us to identify a circle of people who may have been involved in the terrorist act."

A woman, named as S Dzhebirkhanova, appears to be under suspicion in the case of the TU-154 in which she too perished, while a Chechen woman called Amanta Nagaeva, who was on board the other plane which was headed for Volgograd, is suspected of involvement in that (as yet unconfirmed) attack.

Both were apparently able to board the planes without disclosing their passport information and until yesterday nobody had claimed their bodies or shown any interest in their fate, though an unnamed relative of Ms Dzhebirkhanova has since allegedly been in contact.

Sources close to the investigation have said that it looks like the bomb on board the Sochi-bound plane was detonated in the toilet towards the jet's rear, close to where Ms Dzhebirkhanova had been seated. They say that explosives the size of a bar of soap would have been enough to cause the blasts.

It now appears as if one of the planes sent a hijack alert while the other sent a straightforward SOS.

Black Widows - Chechen female suicide bombers who have often lost their husbands during the conflict - are not a new phenomenon. They struck near the Kremlin last year, killing five.

The group, which claimed it was behind the attacks, threatened more bloodshed yesterday "until the killing of our Muslim brothers in Chechnya ceases". It said in a statement on a website: "We in the Islambouli Brigades announce that our holy warriors managed to hijack two Russian planes and were crowned with success. Russia's slaughter of Muslims is still continuing and will not end except with a bloody war." Khaled Islambouli was an Egyptian army officer who assassinated Egyptian president Anwar Sadat in 1981.

Analysts say Moscow now has an impeccable pretext for a fresh crackdown. Andrei Soldatov, a security analyst, said: "The government will now be able to say that the fight against separatists in Chechnya comes under the roof of international terrorism. As soon as they say that, you can forget about human rights."

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