Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Suicide bomber kills 20 in Caucasus

Tony Halpin | August 18

CARNAGE returned to the Caucasus yesterday when a suicide bomber killed 20 people and wounded 138 by ramming a truck loaded with explosives into a police station in the southern Russian republic of Ingushetia.

The attack in the city of Nazran undermined claims by the Kremlin that it had restored order to the North Caucasus - a region where Islamic militancy is gaining ground in the face of biting poverty and a brutal government crackdown.

The bombing was timed to coincide with morning roll call at the police headquarters, which was devastated in the blast. Prosecutors said that all of the dead and many of the wounded were police.

President Medvedev reacted by dismissing Ingushetia's Interior Minister, declaring on state television that "this terrorist act could have been avoided". He ordered the federal Interior Minister, Rashid Nurgaliyev, to present proposals for toughening security in the region.

"I believe this was not only a result of problems connected to terrorist activities, but also a result of the unsatisfactory performance of the republic's law enforcement agencies," Mr Medvedev said.

In a sign of official desperation over spiralling violence by Islamist militants in the North Caucasus, however, Ingushetia's Kremlin-appointed President lashed out at the West.

Yunus-Bek Yevkurov accused Britain, the US and Israel of fomenting unrest in the region, while also blaming Islamist militants.

"I am miles from believing that Arabs are behind this. There are other more serious forces there...We understand whose interests these are: the United States, Britain, and Israel too," Mr Yevkurov told Russian News Service radio.

"The West will keep seeking to prevent Russia from reviving the former Soviet might."

Prosecutors said that a Russian-made Gazelle truck smashed through a security gate at the police headquarters and sped into a courtyard where officers were lined up for inspection. Police shot at the driver, said Svetlana Gorbakova, a spokeswoman for investigators.

The device left a crater four metres wide and two metres deep. It went off near the police armoury, causing ammunition to explode.

The suicide bomber struck in a densely-populated part of Nazran and the blast smashed windows and damaged balconies in apartment buildings up to 500 metres away. Officials said that at least 10 of the wounded were children.

Rescue workers said that the death toll could rise because they were still searching for people in the rubble of the police building. The scale of the casualties overwhelmed Nazran's medical facilities and an emergency plane was despatched to nearby Beslan to airlift the most critically injured for treatment in Moscow.

The assault undermined the Kremlin's claim to have stabilised the North Caucasus region, which includes Ingushetia, Chechnya and Dagestan. Militants have mounted almost daily attacks on police and Interior Ministry troops since Moscow declared victory in April in its decade-long war to defeat separatists in Chechnya.

Mr Yevkurov, who was badly hurt in an assassination attempt by another suicide bomber in June, said that the latest attack was carried out by Islamist militants who were avenging successful security operations against them along Ingushetia's border with Chechnya. He added: "It was an attempt to destabilise the situation and sow panic."

Ingushetia's construction minister was shot dead in his office last week, and a local Supreme Court Judge was killed shortly before the attempt to assassinate Mr Yevkurov.

President Kadyrov of Chechnya threatened a campaign to "liquidate" militants in Ingushetia, raising fears of a spreading conflict. He said: "We have enough political will and strength to withstand this evil. We have a common enemy and a common goal of neutralising it."

Analysts say that Islamist rebels have found fertile soil for recruitment among young people alienated by deep poverty in Ingushetia and brutal attempts by security forces to suppress dissent. Rights organisations accused Mr Yevkurov's predecessor, Murat Zyazikov, of widespread abuses, including torture and killings by security officials.

Mr Yevkurov threatened to pursue militants relentlessly after he was appointed by Mr Medvedev last October. But he has also set a more conciliatory tone by pledging to punish abuses and crack down on corruption.

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