Suicide bombers at a train station and on a trolleybus killed more than 30 people within 24 hours in the southern city of Volgograd, raising the security threat less than six weeks before Russia hosts the Winter Olympics.
At least 14 people died and 27 others were injured when a man detonated a bomb in the trolleybus during rush hour after 8:10 a.m. local time, the Health Ministry said on its website. The blast yesterday near a metal detector at the entrance to the city’s train station killed 17 people and injured 45 others, according to the ministry.
The twin bombings come as Russia prepares to stage the Olympics in February in Sochi, a Black Sea resort close to the violence-wracked North Caucasus region. Volgograd, which suffered another suicide bombing on a bus in October, is about 700 kilometers (435 miles) northeast of Sochi.
“If another attack happens closer to Sochi, it will be a catastrophe for the Olympics,” Alexei Malashenko, an analyst on the North Caucasus at the Moscow Carnegie Center, said by phone. “Three bombings in the space of three months means that terrorist activity is becoming systematic.”
President Vladimir Putin’s government, which will seal off Sochi, a city of 345,000 people, had planned to beef up security starting on Jan. 7, a month before the games start, according to the state-run news service RIA Novosti.
The Investigative Committee is treating the bombings as terrorist attacks that may be linked. Today’s bomb had the explosive power of more than 4 kilograms (9 pounds) of TNT, according to a website statement. The twisted metal remains of the trolleybus were shown on footage broadcast on state television.
“This cynically planned blow on the eve of New Year’s celebrations is yet another attempt by the terrorists to open a domestic front, sowing panic and chaos,” the Foreign Ministry said today in a website statement. Militants are also trying to stoke tension among religious groups, the ministry said.
In October, a female suicide bomber killed six passengers on a bus in the city, once known as Stalingrad. Another woman died later in the hospital. That bomber arrived from the capital of the mainly Muslim region of Dagestan, disembarking from a bus that was en route to the Russian capital about an hour before she blew herself up, the committee said at the time.
Putin instructed Alexander Bortnikov, the head of the Federal Security Service, known in Russian as the FSB, to fly to Volgograd, Interfax reported today, citing Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov. The president yesterday ordered the government, the emergency and health ministries and the head of the Volgograd region to “take all necessary steps” to aid victims, according to a Kremlin statement.
The number of victims in the train station attack “could have been much higher if not for the system of barriers that prevented the suicide bomber from getting through the metal detector and into the waiting area, where passengers were located,” the Investigative Committee said yesterday.
Russian forces battle almost daily attacks by Muslim extremists in the North Caucasus after two separatist wars since the collapse of the Soviet Union. One of the most economically distressed regions of the country, it stretches from just east of Sochi across Chechnya to Dagestan on the Caspian Sea.
The security services will have “100 percent” control over the Olympic zone, making it “impossible” to infiltrate and conduct a terrorist attack, according to Nikolai Kovalyov, a former director of the FSB. Russia is spending at least $48 billion to stage the Olympics, the most expensive Winter Games, and deploying 30,000 police officers and soldiers in and around Sochi.
While a successful attack on one of the main venues is unlikely, softer targets such as transport facilities elsewhere in Russia or side events organized by Olympic sponsors may be vulnerable, said Tina Soria, a security scholar at the Royal United Services Institute in London.
“Ever since the International Olympic Committee chose Sochi in the summer of 2007, the decision has been criticized for security reasons,” Georgi Engelhardt said in a commentary published today in Moscow Defense Brief. “The city is situated close to the parts of the North Caucasus that have long been regarded as the home turf of jihadist militants.”
In July, Chechen rebel leader Doku Umarov, who has said he was behind at least three of Russia’s deadliest terror attacks, called on militants to target the Sochi Olympics.
Umarov claimed responsibility for organizing the January 2011 suicide bombing at Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport that killed 37 people. The self-styled emir of a pan-North Caucasus Islamic state also said he planned the attacks on the capital’s subway system by female suicide bombers in March 2010 that killed 40 people and the November 2009 bombing of the Nevsky Express train between Moscow and St. Petersburg that killed 28.
Russian forces killed an ally of Umarov on Dec. 28 in Dagestan, RIA reported. The Foreign Ministry blamed calls from militant leaders including Umarov for inciting the attacks.
About 400 Russian Islamic radicals, mainly from the North Caucasus, are currently battling President Bashar al-Assad’s forces in Syria and their return poses a “big threat,” Sergei Smirnov, deputy director of the FSB, the main successor to the Soviet KGB, said in September.
French President Francois Hollande called Putin today to express his “solidarity” and to assure Russia that France stands ready to help fight terrorism, according to an e-mailed statement from his office.
Anders Fogh Rasmussen, secretary general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, yesterday expressed his condemnation of the terrorist threat.
“There can be no justification for such barbarous attacks,” Rasmussen said in a statement. “NATO and Russia stand together in the fight against terrorism.”