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Russia: Muscovites Rally In Wake Of Bombing

  • Sophie Lambroschini

The bomb explosion yesterday that rocked a pedestrian passageway on Tverskaya street in central Moscow, just a kilometer from the Kremlin, left the city in shock. RFE/RL's Sophie Lambroschini reports that Muscovites are pulling together like a people at war.

Moscow, 9 August 2000 (RFE/RL) --Twelve hours after an explosion in a busy Moscow underpass killed seven people and injured more than 60, the city was responding with an outpouring of solidarity.

Hundreds of volunteers rushed to donate blood at Sklifosovsky hospital, overwhelming the hospital's facilities. This morning, as some 200 people were still waiting in line, a Moscow city official was barking into his phone to "get out on the street and flag down some buses" to take the donors to other sites.

Most of the blood donors are young people, just like most of the victims. The pedestrian underpass where the bomb went off yesterday evening is located near Pushkin Square, a popular meeting place among young people. The area has two large cinemas and several outdoor cafes, and the underpass is lined with kiosks selling videotapes, cigarettes, and trendy clothes.

"It could really have been me in that underpass," says 22-year-old Katya, who is waiting her turn to donate blood. Katya says she and her friends spent the night on the phone checking on friends and relatives.

"Every Muscovite goes to Pushkin Square an average of twice a week. So any one of us could've been there. I want to help these people [by giving blood]. That's the only thing I can do. I can't protect anyone, can't shield anyone. I think our president, the government, should do that."

The explosion occurred at 6 pm Moscow time. For two hours afterwards, people with blood-caked clothes were still wandering Pushkin Square, looking for friends and relatives. One injured woman refused to get into an ambulance until she located her daughter.

This morning the underpass was already reopened to the public. Despite the sharp stench of burnt plastic and the semi-darkness, the passage was full of people. Electricians were trying to reestablish electricity in the blackened tunnel. Two dozen policemen stood in front of the charred kiosks, protecting the goods -- or what was left of them -- from thieves. In one kiosk, a woman crawled around on her knees with a flashlight in her mouth, picking up batteries and pens from the floor of her tiny shop.

Yesterday's blast reminded Muscovites of the series of apartment-building bombings that killed over 300 people in Moscow and other cities last September. Piles of explosives hidden in the basements of high-rise buildings went off in the middle of the night reducing whole floors -- and their inhabitants -- literally to dust. Those explosions were blamed on Chechen terrorists, although no proof was found.

After last summer's bombings, Russian authorities sent troops into Chechnya. Since then, thousands of Russians and Chechens have died in the fighting, and 200,000 Chechens were driven from their homes.

Aleksandr Muzykantsky, a Moscow city official, told ORT television yesterday: "We Muscovites should all understand that we're living in the capital of a country at war. We should make the conclusions that citizens of countries at war make."

Police have been on high alert in the North Caucasus because this week marks several anniversaries in the Chechen conflict. On August 6, 1996, Chechen rebels retook Grozny, signaling the end of the first war. And this week in 1999, Chechen rebels invaded neighboring Daghestan, setting off the events that led to Russia's current offensive against the republic.

Federal Security Service (FSB) officials were careful to say that the bomb could have been set by a criminal gang as well as by Chechen rebels. But so far the only two people to be detained for questioning are a Chechen and an Avar from Daghestan.

And while President Vladimir Putin said today that it would be wrong to simply blame Chechnya as a whole for terrorist acts, he clearly implied that Chechens were behind the bombing.

"But, of course, we do have to know where the threats emanate from. Man has not developed any more effective way of combating terrorism, apart from one. This is the only medicine. The only adequate response. We have to finish what we've started in the North Caucasus. We have to finish off the terrorists in their own den."

Putin says he has taken "personal control" of the investigation.

Reinforced security measures in Moscow clearly reflect a fear of more attacks. Police have posted guards at electrical plants, gasworks, and water reservoirs. Some 1,600 Interior Ministry troops are patrolling the metro.

The city has also revived the measures put in place after last summer's bombings: police have set up checkpoints on the streets, and hundreds of basements are being searched for explosives. Several officials, including Security Council Secretary Sergei Ivanov and Interior Minister Vladimir Rushailo, have called on Muscovites to be vigilant and to patrol their apartment buildings 24 hours a day.

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