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Ten Years On, Troubling Questions Linger Over Russian Apartment Bombings

Rescuers remove the body of a victim from the site of September 9, 1999, bombing.
Rescuers remove the body of a victim from the site of September 9, 1999, bombing.
Click here for a slideshow of images from the 1999 bombings.

Most of the residents of an apartment block in southeast Moscow were asleep when an explosion on the ground floor tore through the front of their building shortly after midnight, 10 years ago today. The blast killed 94 people and injured almost 250.

Five days earlier, a bomb killed 64 people at an apartment building in the southern city of Buinaksk. In the coming weeks, two more apartment blasts would kill more than 130 in Moscow and another southern city, Volgodonsk. More than 300 people would die in the four bombings.

The blasts sent a wave of fear washing over a country crippled by a savage political struggle to succeed ailing President Boris Yeltsin. The authorities blamed the explosions on Chechen rebels. Seething with anger, newly appointed Prime Minister Vladimir Putin -- Yeltsin's choice to replace him -- vowed to kill Chechen militants wherever they were hiding.

"If they're in the airport, we'll kill them there. And excuse me, but if we find them in the toilet, we'll exterminate them in their outhouses," Putin said.

It was the public's first taste of Putin's now infamous prison-inflected slang, and it met with huge approval in a society weary from a decade of economic collapse. Putin soon launched a second war in Chechnya. His ratings soared.

'Dark Biography'

Political analyst Vladimir Pribylovsky says the apartment bombings enabled a virtually unknown bureaucrat to sweep into the presidency months later.

[The bombings] changed the situation by favoring a prime minister nobody knew, with a dubious, dark biography.
"They changed the situation by favoring a prime minister nobody knew, with a dubious, dark biography," Pribylovsky says. "Two things brought about Putin's victory: the bombings and the phrase about wiping out terrorists in the outhouse."

Today, after eight years as president, Putin is prime minister again, and still firmly in charge of a country he remade into an authoritarian state.

Six Muslims from southern Russia have been sentenced in connection to the 1999 bombings, but the case remains unsolved. A small handful of critics say that's because the explosions were staged by the Federal Security Service, or FSB.

That line of reasoning has proved highly dangerous. Two of its leading proponents have been killed. Another was sent to a Siberian prison on what he says were false charges to stop him from investigating the bombings.

'Nothing I Could Do'

Mikhail Trepashkin, a lawyer who represented two sisters whose mother died in one of the Moscow explosions, says police stopped his car shortly before their case was due in court.

"They searched my car twice and found nothing. As they were closing the door, they threw in a bag containing a pistol," Trepashkin says. "I said it wasn't mine, but there was nothing I could do. I was held for a total of four years, one month, and eight days in harsh conditions, including torture and insults."

Trepashkin, a gregarious former FSB officer who says the prison conditions have affected his health, says he was promised the charges would be dropped if he stopped investigating the bombings.

He says he was also asked to be part of a death squad tracking another official doubter, former KGB officer Aleksandr Litvinenko. Litvinenko was fatally poisoned three years ago by a radioactive substance in London, where he lived in exile. His supporters say he was killed because he blamed the FSB for the apartment bombings.

Historian Yury Felshtinsky, who co-wrote a book with Litvinenko called "Blowing Up Russia," told RFE/RL's Russian Service that no single fact has emerged to disprove their account.

"Even the FSB, in its own version of the events -- over which the second Chechen war was launched -- hasn't actually accused a single Chechen," Felshtinsky says.

Must Have Known

Felshtinsky says Putin, who headed the FSB until August 1999, must have known about the bomb plot.

Critics say the debris from the bombings was cleared away too quickly to allow proper investigations, usually in a matter of days. They also say it's significant no Chechen rebels ever claimed credit for the bombings.

These special forces -- which have giant opportunities and secrets -- can manipulate public opinion and direct the course of events using all kinds of illegal methods at their discretion.
But it was a mysterious episode shortly after the Moscow bombings that some believe provided the best glimpse into what the FSB was doing. It began late on a September night, when residents of an apartment block in the city of Ryazan in central Russia noticed a suspicious-looking car parked near a basement door. They informed the police, who discovered large bags of white powder connected to a detonator. The timer was set to go off early the next morning.

The police said tests showed the powder was hexogen, a World War II-era explosive used in the Moscow explosions. The local authorities announced they'd narrowly averted another blast.

But as the police were about to make arrests two days later, FSB chief Nikolai Patrushev appeared on national television to announce the sacks in fact contained only sugar. He said they were used as part of a public safety drill. The FSB quickly cleared the basement of all remaining evidence.

Trepashkin and others believe the official confusion over the incident showed the FSB did organize the operation -- not as a counterterrorism exercise, but to blow up the building.

When the authorities refused to investigate the bombings, a small group of liberal legislators formed their own independent committee. Its vice-chairman, Sergei Yushenkov, was gunned down outside his Moscow apartment in 2003. Before his death, the prominent Kremlin critic told RFE/RL the committee's findings pointed toward the security services.

"These special forces -- which have giant opportunities and secrets -- can manipulate public opinion and direct the course of events using all kinds of illegal methods at their discretion," he said.

Today, few believe the 1999 bombings will ever be solved.

Last year, Tatyana and Alyona Morozov, the two sisters who hired lawyer Mikhail Trepashkin to investigate the bombing of their apartment building 10 years ago, appealed to President Dmitry Medvedev in an open letter.

"We have come to believe our mother and neighbors were sacrificed for a political end," they wrote. "Only an objective investigation could make us change this view."

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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