A suicide bomber rammed a truck packed with explosives through the gate of a busy police station Monday in Russia's restive republic of Ingushetia, killing 20 people in the blast and sending nearly 140 to the hospital, witnesses and officials said.
The attack in the city of Nazran blew a gaping hole in the main building of the police station, mangled cars and peeled balconies and roofing off a nearby apartment building, witnesses said. Firefighters struggled to evacuate workers trapped in the burning rubble and to keep flames away from the nearby munitions depot, where small arms could be heard exploding in the heat of the fire, witnesses said.
The bomber struck at 9:05 a.m. as the workday got underway. Police officers were on parade when the truck crashed into the courtyard, a source in the Ingush Interior Ministry told the Interfax news agency.
Ingushetia, a mostly Muslim republic on Russia's southern fringes, has been battered in recent months by intensifying attacks on police, government officials and other symbols of authority. Human rights monitors say what began as spillover violence from the neighboring Russian republic of Chechnya has been stoked by excessively harsh methods used by security forces in an attempt to quell the violence.
"Ingushetia is accelerating its fall into the abyss," said Vakha Chapanov, head of the independent Ingush news agency Maximum. "The law enforcement organs say everything is under control, but it's not true. Nothing is under control."
Chapanov heard the blast echo through the streets this morning and raced to the scene.
"The picture was horrible," he said by phone from Nazran, Ingushetia's main city. "They were searching through the mounds of rubble, discovering dead bodies."
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev publicly lambasted Ingush law enforcement, saying the attack could have been prevented. Speaking during a meeting in the Russian city of Astrakhan on Monday, he also announced that the Ingush interior minister had been fired and that he had ordered an internal investigation into the failure to stop the bombing.
"This is the outcome not only of the problems related to terrorist attacks, but also of the republic law enforcement agencies' unsatisfactory work," Medvedev said.
Ingush officials declared three days of mourning and vowed to tighten security at government buildings. "There is no doubt that the militants have done this to draw public attention. This is an attempt to destabilize [Ingushetia] and to sow panic," Interfax quoted Ingush President Yunus Bek Yevkurov as saying.
This morning's attack was an act of vengeance against police from the rebels, Yevkurov said. "The intensified police operations, including the successful actions on the Ingush-Chechen administrative border, were the cause," he said.
The statement came through the president's press secretary; Yevkurov remains in Moscow recuperating from head wounds sustained in a suicide bombing this summer. He is expected to return to the republic at the end of the month to resume his duties.
Since the assassination attempt, the president of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, has intensified joint Chechen-Ingush operations against rebels in Ingushetia. Human rights groups have accused Kadyrov of terrorizing his own population with disappearances, torture and secret prisons, and his involvement in Ingushetia has raised worries among many locals. Human rights groups say that Kadyrov's involvement already has prompted an increase in killings and kidnappings.
But Kadyrov portrayed Monday's attack as proof that his help is needed in Ingushetia and vowed to "liquidate" the rebels.
"The terrorist attack in Nazran once again confirms that we pooled efforts in the fight against terrorism and Wahhabism in the region just in time," the Chechen president said in a statement, referring to a conservative branch of Islam.