Russian investigative journalists claim an explosion last year in the Urals town of Magnitogorsk that killed 39 people was a terrorist attack.
Russian authorities have never given a definitive reason for the blast that ripped through an apartment building on Karl Marx Street in the steel town on December 31, 2018.
Russia’s Investigative Committee said shortly after the blast that it was focusing on a gas leak as the most likely cause.
However, Baza, an independent online news agency that focuses on investigations, on December 27 published a 40-minute video detailing its yearlong probe into the explosion, concluding that at least three men set out to blow up the apartment building and possibly detonate other bombs in the city that day.
Baza did not give a reason for the men’s actions but said that two of them had recently taken a greater interest in Islam and that they were facing financial difficulties.
The Islamic State (IS) extremist group claimed responsibility in mid-January for the Magnitogorsk explosion, but gave no proof to back it up.
Russia’s Investigative Committee said at the time that the claims by IS should not be taken seriously.
“We have no doubt it was a terrorist attack. There is another question: Why are authorities hiding this?” Baza journalists wrote in the introductory text accompanying their investigative video on YouTube.
Baza claims that Makhmud Dzhumaev, Alisher Kaimov, and Almir Abitov were behind the explosion.
Dzhumaev and Kaimov drove private transport vans along specific routes in Magnitogorsk. The industry is dominated by Central Asian migrants mainly from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, Baza said. The third individual, Abitov, repaired the vans.
The three met through work and had begun to spend a lot of time together, including living in an apartment on Lenin Street, even though they had their own families, Baza said, citing relatives of the men.
Shortly before New Year’s, Baza claims the men rented Apartment 135 in the building on Karl Marx from a realtor named Antonina, a relative of the apartment owner.
Baza did not say how they confirmed that the three men rented the apartment, but the news agency said Antonina copied their passports as required by law and passed them on to investigators after the explosion.
Baza showed a list compiled by investigators of residents living in the building on December 31. It indicates two Tajiks were living in Apartment 135 on that day.
Journalists from Baza, pretending to be renters, contacted Antonina about another apartment she was advertising in order to secretly inquire what she knew about the explosion.
The undercover journalists told her they were concerned about renting an apartment in Magnitogorsk with gas because there had been an explosion not too long ago.
“It wasn’t because of gas, of course,” Antonina is heard saying on the call. “They [investigators] had to say something, so they said gas.”
When they asked if it was a bomb, Antonina said, “That is information that can’t be disclosed.”
Immediately following the blast, the Federal Security Service (FSB) put the three men on a wanted list and informed police stations to be on the lookout for Dzhumaev’s van, Baza said, citing police records.
Dzhumaev’s van exploded on the evening of January 1 and three burned bodies were recovered.
However, the coroner's report indicates the three individuals died from bullet wounds, not an explosion, Baza said, possibly indicating a shoot-out with police first.
Investigators then visited the homes of the three men to take DNA samples from their children, Baza said, citing relatives. The investigators needed the samples to see if it matched the bodies in the van. Authorities never made their findings public and didn't identify the victims in the van.
Valentina Gamova, the wife of Abitov, told Baza in a phone interview that investigators told her that her husband may have been involved in a terrorist attack.
On January 1, police also raided the building on Lenin Street where the three men had been living, Baza said, citing residents and photos posted to social media.
Residents told Baza they heard the men building something in their apartment, which the agency suspects could have been a bomb. One said police were taking samples from the apartment.
Rumors that the explosion in Magnitogorsk was a terrorist attack and not the result of a gas leak surfaced the next day amid the apartment building raid.
The rumors were fanned later that month when another Central Asian immigrant living in Magnitogorsk claimed that her husband was arrested and beaten by FSB officers, who suspected him of involvement in the December 31 explosion.
Halimakhon Zainabidinova said her husband, Husniddin Zainabidinov, told her the FSB showed him photos of “some bearded men” and demanded information about them.
"He told them that he didn't know the men, but the officers didn't believe him," Halimakhon said.
Russian police denied they arrested Zainabidinov in connection with an investigation into the explosion. Rather, they claimed they arrested him because he was wanted in Kyrgyzstan.