Wave of apartment bombings in Russia appears unstoppable

Fifth explosion lends credence to terrorist conspiracy theories

The World

September 17, 1999|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- When a large truck bomb ripped the front off an apartment building in southern Russia yesterday, killing at least 17, it moved people throughout the country to ask what can be done to stop the seemingly relentless wave of bombings.

The explosion in Volgodonsk was the fifth in Russia since Aug. 31, all attributed by authorities to Chechen rebels. Nearly 300 people have been killed in the explosions.

Yesterday's came at 6 in the morning, devastating one of the prefabricated concrete-slab buildings that were cheaply built and ubiquitous in the Soviet era. Local officials said the building, like two in Moscow, would have collapsed if the attackers had been able to get the explosives inside; the terrorists were thwarted by doors that had just been locked as a security precaution.

Instead, the bomb dug a deep crater in front of the building, and sent the nine-story facade cascading to the ground. At least 184 people were injured.

The bombing seemed to offer confirmation of a scenario outlined Monday by a writer for the newspaper Novaya Gazeta, Vyacheslav Izmailov, a former army major. Izmailov reported that he had been approached by a member of the conspiracy, a Russian identified as Alexander, who had gotten cold feet. Alexander, he said, told him that teams with explosives had been sent to Moscow, St. Petersburg and the Rostov region -- which includes Volgodonsk -- at the bidding of the leaders of the recent rebellion in Dagestan, Shamil Basaev and an Arab who goes by the name of Khattab.

Ten attacks in all were planned, he said.

"Another bombing can happen any place in Russia," Izmailov said yesterday. "The state is unable and it doesn't want to protect the population."

In Moscow, police reported finding several caches of explosives, but their achievement did little to reassure a jittery and increasingly angry population.

Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, ticking off incidents stretching back two years, insisted that the federal government had done nothing in all that time to ensure the security of Russia.

Putin meets with Yeltsin

Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin met yesterday with President Boris N. Yeltsin, who has visited none of the bombing sites and has been visible only in brief television appearances.

"We must not slobber or snivel," Putin said afterward. "Everybody must act resolutely, persistently and energetically at all levels in order to combat terrorism. The foul reptile must be stifled once and for all."

Yet there is a widespread feeling in Moscow that a great deal has been left unsaid about the origins of the recent troubles.

Strikingly, no one has credibly claimed responsibility for the bombings. A caller told the Itar-Tass news agency that he was from a group called the Dagestan Liberation Army, but Izmailov and other experts on the region say they have never heard of such a group.

Responsibility unclaimed

Basaev, in an interview with a Czech news agency a week ago, denied being involved, saying, "What happened in Moscow wasn't Chechen doings, but Dagestani."

But his partner, Khattab, was quoted as saying, "When there are a lot of explosions, then they will get scared. We will stop Russia."

The federal security service, or FSB, felt it necessary to deny yesterday that its agents had plotted the attacks as a means of provoking a state of emergency.

Boris A. Berezovsky, the friend of Yeltsin who in recent years was in frequent contact with Chechen officials over kidnappings, held a press conference to denounce an article in Moskovsky Komsomolets that purported to quote from phone conversations in which he seems to be helping plan the Dagestan rebellion.

The article, he said, was ordered by Luzhkov, who is supported by the paper's owner, Vladimir Gusinsky.

"The man in the cap," he said, referring to Moscow's mayor, "is a liar and a joker."

Basaev and his men, in the meantime, remained out of sight in Chechnya, having left Dagestan on Tuesday. It was the second time in a month that they have disengaged from the fighting with federal forces, who were quick to claim a victory that no one expects to last. The serious question, after Volgodonsk, is where the bombers will strike next.

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