Russia confronted the prospect of a long and unpredictable campaign of terror Thursday, as a fifth bombing in just over two weeks highlighted the country's vulnerability to violent attacks.
The wave of terrorist bombings in Moscow and the nation's south is unprecedented in peacetime Russia. Nearly 300 people have died in the blasts, which have undermined confidence in the ability of security forces to stop the violence.
The latest bombing severely damaged a nine-story apartment building early Thursday in the town of Volgodonsk, about 600 miles southeast of Moscow, killing 18. Russians awoke again to televised images of bodies being removed from tumbled piles of bricks. Authorities blame Chechnya-based guerrillas for the attacks.
The force of the explosion blew off the front of the building and left a 15-yard-wide crater where a truck carrying explosives had been parked. Chairs teetered from exposed apartments where an exterior wall had been blown out, and residents sat in the street with piles of belongings retrieved from the building.
Russia's leaders held top-level meetings Thursday and sought vainly to reassure the populace about the attacks, which have put Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin under intense pressure and raised doubts about whether the Kremlin elite associated with President Boris N. Yeltsin can cling to power in coming elections.
"The terrorists will never attain their goals," Yeltsin declared. "They will not break us. The authorities have enough will and enough resources for the struggle against terrorism."
The violence comes with the Kremlin's power at a low ebb. Opinion polls indicate that Yeltsin is highly unpopular. Putin, recently named by Yeltsin as his successor, has found his government undermined by the bombings and fighting in the volatile Caucasus region of southern Russia.
Looking grim, Putin ordered Cabinet members Thursday to be more vigilant in the fight against terrorism. "We must not slobber or snivel," he said. "The foul beast must be stifled once and for all. If this is not done, we shall never be able to overcome terrorism."
Putin gave government agencies three days to draw up and enact firm anti-terrorism measures. Yeltsin said all road, rail and air traffic from the separatist Chechnya republic to other regions of Russia must be stopped--endorsing a proposal put forward by Putin two days earlier.
Russian authorities are convinced that the bomb attacks were masterminded by two leaders of the Muslim rebels in southern Russia, Shamil Basayev and a Jordanian- or Saudi-born fighter named Khattab. The pair are leading a guerrilla campaign in Dagestan, aimed at splitting the republic from Russia. Chechnya, a neighboring republic, has been virtually independent since rebels there defeated Russian forces in a 1994-96 war.
Recent Russian media reports claimed the two rebel leaders ordered the bombing attacks. Both rebels, who have not shied away from owning up to past attacks against Russians, have denied responsibility.
Their denials have fueled a widely repeated conspiracy theory here: that the bombings are a cynical bid by Russia's political elite to create an excuse to declare a state of emergency and cancel December's parliamentary elections or next summer's presidential poll.
Viktor A. Kremenyuk, a security analyst and deputy director with the USA-Canada Institute in Moscow, said he believes that the bombings are the responsibility of forces that "want to create such tension that people will throw themselves at the Kremlin's feet and beg for a state of emergency. No one will care about holding the elections anymore, people will just want to feel safe and protected."
But Alexander A. Zdanovich, a spokesman for the Federal Security Service, or FSB, which is spearheading the investigation, called such suspicions absurd. "The political card is being played in inappropriate circumstances," he said.
The bombings began Aug. 31 with a blast at a Moscow shopping mall, which killed one person. On Sept. 4, an additional 64 people died when an apartment building for military families in Dagestan was destroyed by a bomb planted nearby in a truck. Last week, 92 people died when a blast ripped through a Moscow apartment building. A similar attack Monday on a Moscow apartment block killed at least 118 people.
The FSB claimed Thursday that it had averted several more bombings in Moscow with the discovery during a security blitz of 76 sacks of explosives weighing a total of about 3 1/2 tons.
Like the bomb used in Monday's blast, the explosives found by investigators Thursday were disguised in sugar sacks. Detonators and six timing devices were found, Zdanovich said, suggesting six more blasts had been planned.
The little-known Dagestan Liberation Army took responsibility for the bombings in Moscow and Dagestan, but the claim was brushed aside by investigators certain that Basayev and Khattab are the culprits.