Two female suicide bombers blew themselves up on packed subway cars in Moscow’s bustling downtown early Monday morning, officials said, killing at least 38 people and injuring dozens more.
The massive explosions roared through the underground at rush hour, just as the city’s commuters jam the metro system on their way to work and school. It was the first such attack to reach Moscow capital in six years, raising the grim specter of violence creeping back into the symbolic and bureaucratic heart of Russia.
The first strike came just before 8 a.m. when a woman set off a suicide bomb just as the doors of the subway carriage slammed shut at Lubyanka Square station. Set just a few blocks from the Kremlin, the square holds a deep and unsettling place in the Russian consciousness as the headquarters of the Soviet KGB, and now its successor, the FSB.
Less than an hour later, a second explosion hit Park Kultury, another iconic station alongside Gorky Park, where Russian children flock for roller coasters, sprawling gardens and ice skating.
Investigators said they had identified one of the bombers, and were hunting for two women who were seen on surveillance camera footage accompanying the attackers to the doors of the Metro station, law enforcement sources told Interfax. Some of the suicide attackers’ remains were found in the bombed trains, and were sent for forensic identification. The remains included the head of a woman believed to be a bomber, unnamed investigators told Russian news agencies.
The bombings come amid a quiet but intensifying war of attrition between the government and rebels in Russia’s southern, largely Muslim republics. Amid increased fighting and instability in Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan, Russia has stepped up abductions and assassinations of Islamist leaders. The Islamists, in turn, have vowed to visit bloodshed on cities in the heart of Russia.
While the Russian public is generally accustomed to bloodshed in the Caucasus, indignation and a thirst for reprisal have historically followed strikes that reach Moscow. The Monday morning carnage piles extra pressure on the government to increase stability on an increasingly volatile region.
“Obviously, we have not done enough,” Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said at an emergency meeting, Russian news agencies reported.
“Security must be reinforced,” Medvedev said. “We must consider this problem on a national scale, rather than focus on particular means of transportation or particular cities.”
Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin cut short a working trip to Krasnoyarsk and headed back to Moscow, vowing to unleash vengeance on the groups that organized the attack.
“I am confident that law enforcement agencies will do everything to find and punish the criminals,” Putin said in a video conference carried by state media. “The terrorists will be destroyed.”
Putin later signed a decree ordering that families of the dead would be paid 300,000 rubles, about $10,150, plus another $609 to cover the cost of funerals.
The explosions come just a few days after the 10th anniversary of Putin’s election to the presidency. Now serving as prime minister after being forced from the Kremlin by term limits, Putin is widely seen as Russia’s ultimate authority, and many analysts expect him to return to the presidency in the next elections.
But much of Putin’s time in power has been defined by struggle with Islamists in the Caucasus. After two recent Chechen wars; the installation of proxy leadership to crack down on Chechen separatists and lingering, heavy-handed efforts to squash violence, bloody unrest has recently resurged on the southern edge of Russia ÃÂ and raised questions about the government’s ability to stabilize the country.
Now Russians are watching keenly to see how Moscow will respond. In the past, bombings in Moscow have unleashed war in Chechnya -- and, analysts say, helped Putin cement his grip on high power.
“If you follow Russian events, you note that almost every such attack was exploited and taken as a pretext for restricting democratic freedoms in Russia,” said Andrei Piontkovsky, a politican analyst with the Russian Academy of Science. “It’s the usual paradox: It shows the weakness of the government, but at the same time, they may use it to get more power.”
In the earliest hours after the bombing, Russian politicians lashed out at other officials’ failure, and called for change.
“Terror attacks in the Moscow metro have highlighted serious flaws in the work of security agents in the Caucasus,” said Gennady Gudkov, deputy chairman of the State Duma security committee, told Interfax. Gudkov called for the creation of a new FSB directorate in the Caucasus.
Other officials speculated that the blasts could be a twist of vengeance from supporters of Sayed Burytsky, an Islamist ideologue who was reported killed by security services earlier this month.
The Russian government had blamed Buryatsky for a spate of recent attacks, including the bombing of a high speed train linking Moscow to St Petersburg. The Russian government said he was killed in a security operation in a village in the republic of Ingushetia. An Islamist website later confirmed Buryatsky’s death.
Another rebel leader, Doku Umarov, threatened Russian cities in a February interview with a website linked to the Islamists.
“Blood will no longer be limited to our cities and towns,” Umarov said. “The war is coming to their cities.”
Traffic snarls brought much of the city to a crawl for much of the work day, as underground trains were rerouted and frazzled commuters packed themselves into gypsy cabs. Cab drivers, in turn, hiked their prices drastically in response to the sudden spurt in demand.
Sirens screamed through the streets, and helicopters hovered overhead. Worried family members overloaded some of the city’s mobile networks searching for loved ones.