Nine months after the Moscow hostage crisis that left dozens of civilians dead, two female suicide bombers brought violence back to the Russian capital over the weekend when they blew themselves up at an open-air rock concert. No one has claimed responsibility, but the Russian authorities blame Chechen separatists for the attack.
Prague, 7 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The double blast occurred on the afternoon of 5 July at the Tushino airfield, in northwest Moscow, where tens of thousands of Russian youths had gathered for the annual "Wings" rock festival.
The two bombers detonated their explosive belts at the entrance of the airfield while waiting to pass security checks.
Speaking to reporters after the incident, Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov said the number of casualties could have been much greater had the women succeeded in getting inside the compound.
"Those terrorists were unable to enter the area where the concert was taking place," Luzhkov said. "When they realized that they would not be able to get inside, they were forced to carry out their barbarous, awful plans before they reached the [security] cordon, the admission point."
Eyewitnesses say the first suicide bomber detonated her belt when she realized she had been spotted by security forces. However, the explosives failed to detonate completely, and only a few people nearby were injured. The bomber herself died soon after.
Minutes later, another woman standing near the cash desk detonated her belt, blasting lead balls and bolts over a 10 meter radius.
Moscow authorities say 15 people were killed in the blasts, including the two bombers. Of the 60 people injured in the explosions, 40 were still being treated in hospitals today.
Investigators claim they have found a passport at the scene of one of the blasts, identifying the first suicide bomber as 20-year-old Chechen resident Zulikhan Elikhadzhieva.
If the news is confirmed, it would not be the first time female suicide bombers have taken part in attacks against Russian targets.
In October of last year, Chechen separatists strapped with explosives -- including many widows of Chechen fighters killed by Russian troops -- took hundreds of spectators hostage during a Moscow theater performance. Dozens of civilians were mistakenly killed along with the hostage-takers by Russian security forces during a rescue attempt.
On 5 June, a female suicide bomber blew up a bus carrying Russian military personnel in the North Caucasus republic of Northern Ossetia, killing 17 people.
In a statement posted on its website on 5 July, the Foreign Ministry of Chechnya's separatist government denied any links with the Tushino attacks and reiterated its condemnation of all forms of terrorism.
No one has claimed responsibility for the twin bombings, but Russian authorities say they have no doubt Chechen separatists are behind the attacks. Officials in Moscow point in particular to Shamil Basayev, a Chechen field commander believed to have masterminded several hostage-takings and bomb attacks in recent years.
In comments made to Russia's RTR state television channel, First Deputy Interior Minister Rashid NurgAliyev today said the two bombers belonged to a group that is planning other attacks "in Russia and abroad."
Other Russian media today quote law enforcement agencies as saying that suspected suicide bomber Elikhadzhieva was a resident of Kurchaloi, a small town in eastern Chechnya. Described as the sister of a separatist fighter who was killed six months ago in clashes with Russian troops, she reportedly joined the resistance recently to undergo military training in Georgia's Pankisi Gorge.
Georgia's Security Ministry spokesman Nika Laliashvili today described as "disinformation" reports that Elikhadzhiyeva had flown to Moscow from Tbilisi on the eve of the bombing.
Russian investigators reportedly found an air ticket on the body of the young woman, showing that she had boarded a plane in the Georgian capital on 4 July. Yet, following Georgia's protests, security officials suggested Elikhadzhieva could have flown from the Ingush city of Nazran.
Despite Georgia's denials, Russia has long accused its southern neighbor of harboring armed Chechen separatists on its territory.
A Georgian security crackdown in the Pankisi Gorge last year seemingly brought the dispute to an end, but last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin's envoy to the North Caucasus region, General Viktor Kazantsev, leveled fresh accusations at Tbilisi, claiming Chechen field commander Ruslan Gelayev was still in Pankisi with his men and planning a series of "terrorist attacks" on Russia.
Putin, who was due to travel to Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan yesterday, cancelled his trip upon receiving news of the Tushino attack.
In a message of condolence read on Russian state television today, Putin blamed the perpetrators of the bombing for attempting to spread the seeds of interethnic hatred between Russians and Chechens.
"The aim of this terrorist attack is obvious. Its aim is to spread fear, suspicion, and national intolerance in our society. But you and I know that for those who betray their own people and for murderers there is and there should be no future," Putin said. The president made no reference to the ongoing war in Chechnya.
Addressing a cabinet meeting today at the Kremlin, Putin vowed to wage a merciless battle against "terrorists" -- since, in his words, any compromise would herald the demise of the Russian state.
"No country in the world ever allows terrorists to dictate their will," Putin said. "Russia will not do so either, because one single step in that direction would mean the beginning of the disintegration of our country and then the numbers of victims would grow by tens, hundreds, or thousands."
Putin also reiterated earlier claims that Chechen separatists had ties with international terrorist groups. In a veiled reference to Georgia -- which has refused in the past to hand over alleged Chechen fighters arrested in Pankisi -- he also said Russia should step up efforts to have people accused of committing crimes on its territory extradited to Moscow.
Reverting to his strong language of the early stages of the second Chechen campaign, Putin also vowed to exterminate all separatist fighters who refuse to lay down their weapons under an amnesty law voted earlier this year.
"It is useless to conduct preventive actions against these people," Putin said. "They must be flushed out of cellars and caves where they are still hiding and they must be destroyed."
The Tushino bombings were a hard blow for Putin who, on the eve of the attack, decreed that presidential elections in the breakaway republic would take place in early October. That same day, the Kremlin leader also ordered Russia's Federal Security Service to hand over the reins of military operations in Chechnya to the Interior Ministry starting 1 September and told local police to take additional steps to ensure security in the region.
Giving the Interior Ministry the upper hand in Chechnya and pressing for elections in a bid to legitimize the pro-Moscow administration of Akhmad Kadyrov are key parts of Putin's efforts to prove that life in the war-torn republic is returning to normal and that the fighting there merely amounts to a large-scale police operation.
But critics accuse Moscow of seeking to pit Chechens against Chechens and refusing to enter into talks with the elected separatist leadership.
In comments made in London over the weekend, Akhmad Zakayev -- the aide to Chechen separatist president Aslan Maskhadov -- described the upcoming presidential polls as a "game between Putin and Kadyrov" that means nothing to the victims of Russian violence in Chechnya. He added that acts of despair such as the Tushino attack would probably increase in the run-up to the election.