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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 11 December 2018

Hundreds of thousands evacuated over bomb hoaxes in Russia

About 400,000 people have been rushed out of shopping malls, airports and other buildings since last week

People are checked by security before entering the GUM State Shop in Moscow's Red Square, one of dozens of major buildings, including shopping centres, railways stations, hotels and universities in the Russian capital targeted by telephone hoaxers on September 13, 2017. Pavel Golovkin / AP Photo
People are checked by security before entering the GUM State Shop in Moscow's Red Square, one of dozens of major buildings, including shopping centres, railways stations, hotels and universities in the Russian capital targeted by telephone hoaxers on September 13, 2017. Pavel Golovkin / AP Photo

A wave of fake bomb threats across Russia has entered its second week in what a parliamentary defence official called a “full-scale cyberwar” against the country.

About 400,000 people have been evacuated from more than 1,000 shopping malls, airports, and government and other buildings around the country since the surge in hoaxes began last week, according to the official Tass news agency. Ria Novosti said more than 100,000 people were affected on Monday alone. The calls come from outside Russia via the internet, making them difficult to trace, officials said.

“It’s a full-scale cyberwar using telephone terrorism,” said Frants Klintsevich, deputy head of the defence committee in the upper house of parliament. “We will respond.”

Among the latest targets: a Stalin-era bomb shelter near Moscow’s Garden Ring road, now a Cold War museum, along with several shopping malls and government offices, according to the state-run Tass news service. The headquarters of internet company Yandex NV was targeted just hours after a visit by president Vladimir Putin, according to a security source cited by Tass. The company later said a fire alarm had been triggered.

On Thursday, more than 15,000 people in eight cities were evacuated because of hoaxes, Ria Novosti reported, citing a security official.

“No other country in the world has experienced something like this. It’s an extraordinarily dangerous situation,” said Nikolai Kovalyov, a member of the lower house of parliament and former head of the Federal Security Service (FSB), the main successor to the Soviet KGB. “It all started as a hacking attack via internet-telephony and now ordinary crazies have joined the wave.”

The FSB told other security agencies last week not to comment publicly on the hoaxes in order to reduce the risk of panic, the Vedomosti newspaper reported. There was no answer at the FSB press office in Moscow.

But Vladimir Puchkov, minister of emergency situations, said the continuing threats were “a major problem”, Ria reported. He rejected speculation they were part of a drill organised by authorities.

So far, all of the hundreds of threats have turned out to be fake. Losses from the evacuations have reached at least 300 million roubles (Dh19m) in the past week, according to the RBC newspaper.

No one has publicly claimed responsibility for the hoaxes. Officials have given conflicting accounts of who they suspect is behind them, ranging from ISIL to security services in Ukraine, which has accused Russia of mounting cyber attacks on its power grid and other systems. Ukrainian military spokesman Andriy Lysenko denied his country played any role, saying the Kremlin was seeking to turn Russia’s population against its neighbour.

“This has been an attack unprecedented by its size and unique for Russia,” said Sergey Nikitin, an expert in Moscow-based cybersecurity firm Group-IB.

Hackers may use a chain of servers located in different jurisdictions - that may have conflicts with each other and do not exchange information - to make a call, according to Mr Nikitin. This, in addition to possible use of voice-modulation software and Google translate, make them impossible to trace, he said.