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Russia: Moscow Awaiting Increased Security After New Blast

In the wake of yesterday's lethal explosion in an apartment building in Moscow -- the second in a week in the capital -- Russian authorities have announced a series of new safety measures to reassure unnerved Muscovites. RFE/RL's Moscow correspondent Sophie Labroschini assesses the government's actions and the jittery mood of Moscow's residents.

Moscow, 14. September 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The blast that destroyed an entire apartment block in Moscow yesterday is the fourth apparent bomb to have exploded in Russia in the past two weeks. About 190 people have died in these explosions. After yesterday's incident, Russian authorities announced tough measures to fight terrorism and increase security. Before this no increased security had been visible in Moscow.

President Boris Yeltsin delivered a special address to the nation after yesterday's blast, which blew to bits a 64-apartment building. Saying "terrorism has declared war on the Russian people," Yeltsin asked Russians to be "vigilant." He said he had ordered reinforced security in major Russian cities and around nuclear plants, oil pipelines and fuel depots. He also specifically ordered Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov to check all attics, cellars, abandoned buildings, storehouses, airports, and railway stations within the next 24 hours for possible bombs.

In an improvised press conference near the ruins of the bombed building, Luzhkov took a hard stance. He said that he would set up what he called a "special regime" in the capital. Incoming vehicles will be checked, starting today. Markets and public places will also be given greater security.

Luzhkov said that "the toughest and most radical" measures would be taken "to keep casual workers from penetrating the city." He was referring to the tens of thousands of people who come to Moscow from other Russian towns, or from other countries in the Commonwealth of Independent States, looking for work.

Such measures are consistent with Luzhkov's controversial policy of using administrative procedures to limit the number of inhabitants in Moscow. City authorities have, in effect, continued to apply the Soviet registration system that forbade people from choosing their place of residence freely. These old-style measures are in clear violation of new Russian laws.

According to the radio station "Echo of Moscow," the city's authorities are also considering placing police or civilian guards in front of every one of about 120,000 building entrances.

But many Muscovites are not reassured by these announced steps. There was no apparent security reinforcement after a first bomb exploded in the Manezh shopping mall near the Kremlin two weeks ago (Aug. 31). That blast was followed by another in an apartment building last Thursday, killing almost 100 inhabitants. Farther away, in Dagestan, a car bomb exploded outside an apartment building nine days ago (Sept. 4), killing more than 60.

Lyuba works as a barmaid in a small outside cafe right across from the "Manezh." She told our correspondent that she hasn't noticed any higher security in or around the place. In her view, it can happen again, just about anywhere. And she admits to being afraid, especially at work.

Lyuba said many of the cafe's customers have become nervous. Last week, she said, there was a plastic bag standing in a corner by one of the tables. She recalled: "People nearby asked me several times to get the militia to check it. But there was not a single uniform in sight. I don't have a telephone, and I can't leave my work place. So the clients just left."

Nor are there any obvious security measures to reassure shoppers in Moscow's malls. For several years, even small shops in Moscow had a bear-like security man dressed in fatigues scrutinizing every customer. But this practice has slowly disappeared, and was not even reintroduced after the last explosion. This afternoon, the entrances to the Manezh mall were free of police or other security.

The head of the mall's security service, Valery Prasolov, told RFE/RL that there were new security measures, but they were what he described as "confidential and invisible." Prasolov called questions about the mall's safety "indecent and improper," even though he boasted that his security men were "watching almost every single person in the mall." And indeed, when our correspondent began interviewing shoppers, it took plainclothes men just one minute to intervene, saying that interviews were "subject to special authorization."

Prasolov dismissed the need for more visible security measures, such as bag checks at the mall's entrance. He said such actions were "useless public-relations measures meant to calm public opinion" and would not "guarantee anyone's safety."

Our correspondent observed three men in military uniform patrolling near an entrance to the "Okhotny Riad" metro station, on Moscow's main shopping street. She asked an official of the metro safety department there whether these men were part of a security deployment. He answered that he "hadn't gotten any orders to increase safety rounds or other measures." As for the patrolling officers, the official said "they're on the lookout for draft dodgers." (He refused to give his name, saying that he wasn't allowed to speak without his superior's authorization.)

The inspectors of the Moscow police department responsible for the area north of the Kremlin told RFE/RL that they had spent most of their morning, in their words, "cleaning out cellars." In Moscow, cellars are systematically broken into and rarely locked. But at mid-day, the inspectors' find amounted to one homeless beggar reeking of alcohol.