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Nerves Rattled as Blasts Hurt 23 on Moscow Buses

Russia: Attacks, second and third in a month on public transportation, raise specter of terrorism. No one claims responsibility.

July 12, 1996|AMY HARMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — Two explosions within 24 hours tore through trolley buses traveling in central Moscow, injuring at least 23 people and spreading alarm through a city that has just weathered a tense but peaceful election.

The first blast, caused by a bomb stashed in a bag of vegetables, took place in Moscow's Pushkin Square on Thursday, injuring five people.

Early today, at least 18 were hurt in another explosion aboard a bus traveling through the Prospekt Mira thoroughfare in northeast Moscow, according to Russia's Interfax news agency. It did not say what caused the blast.

The explosions came one month after another attack on the city's public transportation system left four people dead.

Speaking Thursday, Russia's national security chief, Alexander I. Lebed, called the blast that morning a terrorist attack "aimed at raising tensions in the country." Mayor Yuri M. Luzhkov, who hurried back to Moscow from a trip to a distant monastery, said he suspected separatists from Chechnya, where the war escalated this week.

No one claimed responsibility for the bomb, and police said they did not know its intended message.

The driver of the bus targeted Thursday, 38-year-old Alexander Koktev, was badly burned and in intensive care at a Moscow hospital. About half a dozen people were on that bus at the time of the blast, during the morning rush hour, the Itar-Tass news agency said.

Russia's Federal Security Service said the bag containing the bomb had been left on the bus. An elderly passenger who noticed the bag gave it to the driver, whose compartment is separated from the rest of the vehicle.

The explosion, which occurred when the driver opened the bag, blew off the roof and shattered the windows.

Bystanders in Pushkin Square, a busy intersection about half a mile from the Kremlin that is flanked by parks, statues and street vendors, looked on as police sifted through the shards of glass carpeting the street around the blackened, mangled bus.

"There was a huge bang and people jumped out like corks out of a bottle," said Mikhail Kurdyumov, who was selling compact discs from a table near where the bus exploded. "The bus driver was all covered with soot and wandering around in a state of shock."

"It's terrible that this can happen here," said another man, who declined to give his name. "What is happening to Moscow?"

Contract murders and car bombings are not infrequent in post-Soviet Russia. But the explosions on Moscow's heavily used public transportation system raised concerns that the Russian capital is falling victim to a new brand of random terrorism.

On June 11, a subway bomb killed four people and injured a dozen others five days before the first round of Russia's presidential election. Chechen rebels were suspected in that incident too, but no clues about the bombers emerged.

Heavy fighting continued Thursday in the breakaway Chechen republic, where Russian forces pushed ahead with air and artillery attacks on villages controlled by the separatist rebels.

Gen. Nikolai Skripnik, a top Russian military commander, was killed when his car hit a land mine near the village of Gekhi on Thursday, Itar-Tass reported. Dozens of civilians have been reported killed in the assaults on Gekhi and on Maskhety, headquarters of rebel leader Zelimkhan A. Yanderbiyev.

Each side blames the other for violating a cease-fire pact signed May 27. A Russian military spokesman in Chechnya told Itar-Tass that the latest attacks, which began after President Boris N. Yeltsin's reelection July 3, were to punish the rebels for their violations.

Lebed said Thursday that he is ready to meet with the rebel leader "if he wants peace." But Lebed seemed to indicate that Russia is ready to continue the war. As many as 30,000 people have been killed since Yeltsin sent troops to crush the tiny southern republic's bid for independence 19 months ago.

"An army cannot fight until a certain date," Lebed said. "An army must fight to the victory. If the war resumes, it will go on until victory."

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