x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Moscow fears return of 'Black Widows'

Spectre of North Caucasus insurgency raised as metro bombs kill 38 in two attacks on commuter trains in Russian capital.

MOSCOW // Female suicide bombers set off two explosions in the Moscow metro during the morning rush hour yesterday, killing at least 38 people and raising the spectre of a return of the "Black Widows" and a new wave of deadly attacks connected to Moscow's battle with insurgents from southern Russia. The explosions, which tore through train carriages packed with commuters at two separate metro stations, were the first suicide bombings in the Russian capital since 2004, when a series of deadly attacks of Moscow metro stations and Russian airliners culminated in the Beslan school hostage crisis that left more than 300 dead, most of them children.

The first blast yesterday went off at about 8am as passengers were exiting the train at the Lubyanka station, near the former KGB headquarters, which now houses the agency's main successor, the FSB. At least 23 people were killed there and many more wounded in the explosion, officials said. About 40 minutes later, another explosion ripped through a train waiting at the Park Kultury station, killing 12 and wounding dozens. Three died later at hospital. Both explosives were packed with iron bolts and other metal shrapnel to increase the carnage, officials said.

The attacks sparked panic in central Moscow. People scrambled to learn whether their friends or family had been harmed. "I'm alive!" a young woman screamed into her mobile phone as she hustled away from the Lubyanka station less than an hour after the first explosion. An elderly man near the police cordon on Lubyanka Square was trying desperately to reach his wife by mobile phone but said he was unable to get through.

Ambulances and police cars sped to the crime scenes, their sirens whining, as police officers guided traffic on the nearby major thoroughfares. The Moscow metro is one of the busiest in the world, carrying between eight million and nine million passengers every day, according to metro officials. Yury Luzhkov, the Moscow mayor, told reporters that two female suicide bombers had carried out the attacks during rush hour in order to maximise the human toll. Vladimir Markin, a spokesman for Russia's main investigative committee, said body parts of the female bomber at the Park Kultury station had been discovered among the wreckage, and that she had strapped the explosives to her body.

The woman "had dark hair" and was inside the carriage at the time of the blast, Mr Markin said. The state-run Interfax news agency cited a law enforcement source as saying that surveillance cameras in the Moscow metro showed that the suspected bombers had entered the underground at the far south-western station of the red line, on which both of the targeted metro stations are located. The women made no efforts to cover their faces and were escorted by two women of Slavic appearance who are now being sought by authorities, the source told Interfax.

Unidentified law enforcement officers quoted by Russian media suggested there may have been symbolism in the fact that the first explosion was set off near the headquarters of the FSB, the key agency in Russia's counterterrorism activities. The second blast was one stop away from the Russian interior ministry, to where the second bomber may have been travelling when the explosives detonated, the sources noted.

Photographs and amateur video footage of the aftermath showed corpses strewn along smoke-filled train platforms, while witnesses gave harrowing accounts of panic underground. "I felt the vibrations pulse through my body," Anton Bakanov, who was several carriages away from the blast in the same train, told the state news agency RIA-Novosti in a video interview. "Then the place filled up with smoke. People were screaming horribly."

No one had taken responsibility for the attack as of last evening, but Alexander Bortnikov, the head of Russia's Federal Security Service, or FSB, told Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian president, that they had probably been organised by a group linked to Russia's restive North Caucasus region. Moscow has fought two bloody wars in the past 15 years with separatists in the mainly Muslim republic of Chechnya. A low-grade insurgency has continued in the region, where rebel attacks on police and soldiers are common.

In a televised emergency meeting with Mr Bortnikov and other senior officials, Mr Medvedev said Russia would "continue the fight against terrorism unswervingly and to the end". "It's completely obvious that this action was carefully planned to have a destabilising effect on the situation within the country and within society," he said. Vladimir Putin, Russia's prime minister, cut short a visit to the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk after the attacks. "As you know, today in Moscow we saw a terrible crime against peaceful civilians," Mr Putin told his emergency situations minister, Sergei Shoigu, in a video conference from Krasnoyarsk.

"I am certain our law enforcement agencies will do everything to find and punish these criminals. The terrorists will be eliminated." Mr Putin's ascent in 1999 coincided with the beginning of the second Chechen war, which saw an insurgency infused with radical strains of Islam that were less prevalent among the more secular-leaning separatists in the first Chechen war. Mr Putin famously said early in the second war that the terrorists would be "wasted in the outhouse".

Although there has been a general pacification of Chechnya under the Kremlin's iron-fisted proxy in the region, the Chechen president, Ramzan Kadyrov, the Islamic insurgency in other republics in the North Caucasus has remained stubborn if not large in numbers. The last series of suicide bombings in the Russian capital began in the summer of 2003, when two women detonated themselves at a rock concert at a Moscow air field. Another suicide bomb killed five people in central Moscow in December 2003, and in February 2004 a bomb on a metro train in southern Moscow killed 39 and injured more than 100. Later that year, two Russia airliners exploded in mid-air in what officials called attacks by female suicide bombers, leaving 90 people dead.

In August 2004, another female suicide bomber blew herself up at a Moscow metro station, killing 10 and injuring 50. Days later, Islamic militants seized a school in the southern Russian town of Beslan, where more than 300 hostages died after a stand-off between authorities and the terrorists ended in a chaotic gun battle. But there had been a lull in such brazen attacks until yesterday's bombings amid what analysts saw as a weakening insurgency capable of carrying out serious attacks in the North Caucasus but with dwindling resources and support to attack major federal targets.

Andrei Soldatov, an independent security expert, said yesterday's bombings do not necessarily suggest the imminence of a wave of attacks similar to those in 2004. The Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev, who was the mastermind of the 2004 attacks, was killed in 2006, and it is unclear whether anyone comparably dangerous has replaced him in the insurgency's hierarchy, Mr Soldatov said. "We hope there is no such person," Mr Soldatov said. "It's one thing for a few 'Black Widows' to carry out an attack; it's something entirely different if 40 to 50 insurgents lead an assault. Let's hope it ends with [yesterday's attacks] and that there is no such [new] commander."

Nabi Abudllaev, an expert on security in the North Caucasus who has written extensively about female suicide bombers, said suicide attacks appeared only in the second Chechen war, when radical Islamic elements became part of the insurgency. About two thirds of all suicide attacks were carried out by the so-called Black Widows, Mr Abdullaev said. The stereotype in Russia of female suicide bombers acting out of revenge for violence committed against their male relatives and friends is not completely accurate, Mr Abdullaev said.

"There is no prototype for a Black Widow," he said. "It's not only those whose families had been tortured or abused. Their ages range from 16 to 50, and they come from different social status. There is no single profile." Militants also use female suicide bombers as strategic deployments, Mr Abdullaev said. "It's easier for women to infiltrate a crowd. Police and law enforcers focus on men, and women aren't as physically prepared as men for guerrilla warfare in the mountains - And it's more sensational when women blow themselves up. There's greater resonance in the media when it's a woman."