Russians on the hunt for new suicide bomb cell

Reports say 21 potential bombers are poised to strike as Putin vows to track down masterminds of the Moscow attacks

Shaun Walker
Wednesday 31 March 2010 00:00 BST

With rumours surfacing that a cell of suicide bombers was still at large, Vladimir Putin yesterday promised those responsible for planning the Moscow attacks would be "dragged from the bottom of the sewers".

The country was mourning the deaths of 39 people in Monday's twin suicide bombings on the capital's underground system, but they were also digesting a report in the Kommersant newspaper that a cell of 21 potential bombers could still strike.

Moscow police continued the hunt for three people who are thought to have aided the two female suicide attackers. Photos were released of the bombers' faces, badly disfigured from the blast. One of them appeared to be a very young woman, possibly a teenager.

Nobody has yet claimed responsibility for the blast, but all signs point to it being the work of a terrorist group from Chechnya or the wider North Caucasus region.

Chechen suicide bombers have struck before in Moscow, but it has been six years since the last attack on the Russian capital, during which time the rumbling unrest in the nation's southern corner has been largely forgotten by ordinary Russians.

Citing security sources, Kommersant reported that Said Buryatsky, a leading terrorist ideologue who was killed by Russian security services earlier this month, had prepared a brigade of 30 potential suicide bombers.

The women had been sent to Turkey for training, and then returned to the Caucasus for personal instruction from Buryatsky. Nine of the women have already been deployed in terror acts, mostly in the North Caucasus, but 21 remain unaccounted for, the paper reported.

Buryatsky was killed in Ingushetia, the volatile region that borders Chechnya, and security forces there were sweeping homes yesterday in an attempt to account for female members of families with known militant sympathies.

The Russian Prime Minister was on characteristically colourful form yesterday. "We know that they are lying low, but it is already a matter of the pride of law enforcement agencies to drag them out of the sewer and into broad daylight," Mr Putin said.

A senator from Russia's upper house of parliament suggested that discussions were under way about bringing the death penalty back for terrorism.

Russia's President, Dmitry Medvedev – who is constitutionally the most powerful man in the country but tends to take a back seat to Mr Putin – was more circumspect. He, too, vowed that the terrorists would be "destroyed", but he also dwelt on the appalling conditions in Russia's southern regions of Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan that help breed terror.

"We have destroyed terrorists in the past and will continue to destroy them," Mr Medvedev said. "But it's much harder to create decent, modern conditions for education and business, and to fight the clan politics that have developed in the Caucasus over centuries of corruption."

Only by improving living conditions in the Caucasus could "progress be achieved, and the development of the state ensured", he said.

The Russian President has often depicted himself as more liberal than Mr Putin since taking office in 2008. Some analysts suggest that the terrorist attacks could be used by Mr Putin as a pretext for tightening up controls on civil society and sweeping aside Mr Medvedev's liberal agenda, while others doubt that the President's liberal rhetoric is more than a red herring.

"I understand what authorities will do," said Boris Nemstov, a former deputy prime minister and leading opposition politician. "They will resume persecution of opposition, there will be more censorship, political spying. There will be more riot police dispersing opposition rallies and protests. But it will not save us from terrorism."

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