MOSCOW -- The bodies of six slain men were found in four cars in the Stavropol region of southern Russia, officials said Thursday, triggering an anti-terrorism alert and raising fresh security concerns in the run-up to the Winter Olympics in Sochi.
In two of the cases, booby traps were discovered near the vehicles, the officials said. One explosive device went off without harming anyone.
The first of the incidents was discovered Wednesday in the village of Tambuktan, about 200 miles from Sochi, which will play host to the 2014 Winter Olympics next month. The Stavropol region borders the volatile North Caucasus, where Islamist militants have long battled the Russian government.
The body of a local resident was found shot in the head in a parked Lada car. When police approached, an explosive went off about 20 yards away, said a report posted on the national Investigative Committee's official website. No one was injured.
Within the next few hours, two more cars were found in the village of Zolskaya in a neighboring district. A body was found in the back seat of one car, while another body was found in the trunk of the second car parked on a nearby street. Both victims had been shot.
Three more bodies were discovered later in yet another car in the village of Maryinskaya. Police discovered an explosive device in a zinc bucket nearby. It was disarmed by bomb experts, the report said.
“In the near future, [the four cases] will be united in one investigation,” Vladimir Markin, spokesman for the Investigative Committee said in another statement published on the agency's website Thursday. “Currently investigators are working on several versions of the events trying to establish the motives behind the murders.”
The investigating team includes Federal Security Service and Interior Ministry officers, Markin said.
An anti-terrorist operation, under which special troops in combat vehicles patrol towns, was declared Thursday in two districts of the region, Vladimir Vladimirov, acting governor of the Stavropol region, said in televised remarks.
Police were looking for three residents of the North Caucasus republic of Kabardino-Balkaria as possible suspects, a law enforcement source told Interfax news organization.
The slayings followed two attacks in the southern Russian city of Volgograd, with suicide bombers setting off explosives in the city railway station Dec. 29 and on a crowded trolley bus the following day. No one has yet claimed responsibility for the attacks, which killed 34 people and injured dozens of others.
Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Volgograd on New Year’s Day, meeting with victims of the attacks in hospitals and denounced the attacks as heinous crimes. He then traveled to Sochi to inspect Olympic venues.
Some experts suspect the attacks in Volgograd and in the Stavropol region are connected to a pledge to disrupt next month’s Olympic Games made in June by North Caucasus Islamist resistance leader Doku Umarov.
“They plan to hold the Olympics on the bones of our ancestors, on the bones of many, many dead Muslims buried on our land by the Black Sea,” Umarov, dressed in a camouflage uniform, said in a video statement. Umarov said his fighters would use “maximum force” to prevent the games.
“It is quite possible that the Islamist militants used these pinpoint attacks in the Stavropol region as a decoy, the method they resorted to many times in the past,” Andrei Soldatov, a prominent security analyst and editor-in-chief of Agentura.ru, an online investigative publication, said in an interview with The Times.”They exploded a car in front of a McDonalds restaurant in Moscow [in 2002] on the eve of capturing the Nordost [theater], and a female bomber exploded herself in a Moscow underground on the eve of Beslan,” when militants seized a school in the town in 2004. More than 400 people, mostly children, died in those two terrorist attacks.
“Sochi Olympic Games present a unique possibility for ambitious young terrorists to make their names public,” Soldatov said. “I have grave concerns that they will do their best to use this chance.”