A suicide bomber slipped into a crowd waiting for international passengers arriving at Moscow’s newest and busiest airport, setting off a huge blast that killed 35 people and highlighted another weak spot in security for global air travelers.
The attack at Domodedovo Airport illustrates how difficult it is to safeguard public areas at terminals, even as the United States and other governments engaged in a cat-and-mouse battle with would-be bombers have tightened screenings of passengers and their luggage.
In the United States, such public areas at airports are protected by a hodgepodge of security agencies. In Moscow, visitors are supposed to pass through a metal detector, but one survivor of Monday’s attack said he saw no one being required to do so.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the bombing, which also wounded about 130 people. However, Russia has suffered repeated attacks by Islamic militants from the Caucasus region. Russia has fought two wars against separatists in Chechnya and other republics there, and though the military campaign has largely ended, sporadic violence continues.
Russian officials said they were searching for three Chechen men in connection with the bombing, and added that the attack might be linked to the Dec. 31 explosion of a homemade bomb in a Moscow apartment. A woman who officials believe was being prepared to carry out a suicide attack was killed in that blast.
Domodedovo Airport, which underwent a massive renovation and expansion in the last decade, is about 25 miles southeast of central Moscow and is the largest of three airports serving the capital. In 2004, a pair of suicide bombers there were able to buy tickets illegally from airport personnel and went on to detonate explosives while aboard separate flights, killing 90 people.
Flights from Germany and Britain were among those arriving about the time of the explosion late Monday afternoon, and Russian officials said two British citizens were among the dead.
One witness said he believes he saw the bomber from the back, a man who was in the middle of about 150 people clustered in the cavernous hall awaiting passengers. He said the man was dressed in a black coat and hat, and had a suitcase at his feet.
“At that very moment when I was looking at him, he disappeared in an explosion,” said the witness, 30-year-old Artyom Zhilenkov. “I think it came from the suitcase. I was standing between two columns propping up the ceiling, and that is what I think saved my life, cushioning the shock wave. People all around me were lying on the ground. A choking smoke was quickly filling up the place.”
Zhilenkov, a former military officer who was meeting a friend arriving from Dusseldorf, Germany, said in a telephone interview that he ran for the exit fearing a second explosion, but then turned back to help the injured.
“The place was full of dead people, torn-off limbs, arms and legs and people who were still alive — writhing on the floor helplessly and in great pain,” Zhilenkov said. He said he and another uninjured man put a woman whose leg was nearly severed onto a luggage cart.
“She was screaming in agony all the time we were rolling the cart to the exit. We left her outside where she could at least get some fresh air and ran back,” he said, adding that he then helped another man whose leg had been severed.
The bomb was packed “full of metal pieces” and had the force of between 15 and 22 pounds of TNT, a source in the Russian Investigation Committee told the state-run RIA Novosti news agency. Grainy cellphone pictures showed bodies piled up in the smoky hall.
Another witness described hearing what seemed like fireworks followed by chaos.
“I was sitting near a cafe reading a newspaper when I heard a sound of an explosion as if a fireworks was going off, which seemed very strange to me given that it is an airport,” Sergei Glukhov said in a telephone interview.
“Then people began screaming and running and I saw a man who was wiping blood pouring from his head over his eyes with one hand and trying to make a telephone call with the other,” said Glukhov, who was waiting for his brother to arrive from Munich.
The hall was equipped with a metal detector to screen visitors coming to meet passengers, Zhilenkov said, but no one seemed to be using it.
“Neither did I, and nobody said a word to me,” he said.
U.S. officials said they had not increased security at domestic airports, which have been on alert since an attempt to blow up two U.S.-bound cargo planes in October. An offshoot of Al Qaeda operating on the Arabian Peninsula claimed responsibility for that plot.
Heightened security procedures in place since then include “unpredictable security measures” such as checking bags at random for traces of explosives and using bomb-sniffing dogs, “including before the checkpoint,” said Kristin Lee, a spokeswoman with the Transportation Security Administration.
Access to ticketing and baggage claim areas typically doesn’t require passing through a checkpoint or showing identification. The Moscow bombing “shows how vulnerable these targets are,” said Rick Nelson, director of the homeland security and counter-terrorism program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
It would be safest to search everyone who enters a public area, said Nelson, but that’s not realistic. “More can always be done, but you have to weigh the cost in terms of dollars and civil liberties.”
President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton condemned the attack. “The United States remains ready to support the Russian government as it seeks to bring these perpetrators to justice,” Clinton said in a statement.
Russia President Dmitry Medvedev ordered special security measures at airports and other transportation centers. Domodedovo reopened a couple of hours after the explosion, but increased security resulted in huge crowds of people at the entrances, where they were searched extensively.
“We need to get to the bottom of this,” Medvedev said. “The main thing is to render assistance and support to the victims.”
One lawmaker lashed out at the government, saying it was reacting rather than systematically working to address the root causes of terrorism. The last major attack in Moscow was in March, when a double bombing on the Moscow metro system killed about 40 people and left dozens injured. That attack was traced to remote villages in Dagestan, another of the Caucasus republics.
“We can try to turn every airport, every school, every train, subway station and a shop into a special regime emergency zone, but this won’t help … because it is impossible to live in a besieged fortress all the time,” said Gennady Gudkov, deputy chairman of the lower house of parliament’s Security Committee. “What we should do and what has not been done properly is combat corruption, lawlessness, humiliation of our citizens and lack of fair, unbiased justice, especially in the Caucasus.”
Times staff writer Brian Bennett in Washington contributed to this report.