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Russian train blast spurs terror inquiry

A bomb was placed near a bridge in a bid to send the high-speed Nevsky Express crashing into a ravine, officials say.

August 15, 2007|David Holley | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — Russian prosecutors launched a terrorism investigation Tuesday of a bomb explosion that derailed an express train, overturning carriages and injuring 60 people.

An improvised device was placed under the rails just before a bridge in an effort to make the prestigious Nevsky Express crash into a narrow ravine, which could have caused many more casualties, authorities said. The high-speed train between Moscow and St. Petersburg, frequently used by businesspeople, foreign tourists, politicians and government officials, was traveling about 120 mph when it derailed Monday evening.

Television video showed a 6-foot-wide crater in the gravel rail bed, a broken rail and several cars lying on their sides. The bomb was equivalent to about 6 pounds of TNT, investigators said.

Twenty-five of those hurt were hospitalized, five with grave injuries, authorities said. All of those hospitalized were reported to be Russian citizens.

At the moment of the blast, which hit the front of the train, "our electric locomotive jumped up immediately and glass started flying," Alexei Fedotov, the engine driver, said on state-run television.

"Of course, we were deafened. But we applied emergency braking and cut off electric power to the engine. Then our cabin roof simply flew away."

The blast occurred near the town of Malaya Vishera, about 300 miles northwest of Moscow. Law enforcement authorities said investigators had found wires that might have been used to trigger the explosion.

"The electrical wires, the so-called noodles, were discovered not far from the site of the explosion, in a ravine where the man who connected them must have been," an investigator told the Interfax news agency.

Residents had seen suspicious men in the area in the last few days, authorities added. Composite drawings of two suspects had been prepared by Tuesday evening, Russian media reported.

Politicians and analysts suggested that the attack could be linked to separatist rebels in Chechnya or other Islamic militants in southern Russia's troubled Caucasus region. Some Kremlin critics expressed concern that it could be a provocation aimed at influencing Russian politics, perhaps to offer President Vladimir V. Putin a pretext to remain in power.

A suicide bombing on a commuter train in southern Russia killed 44 people Dec. 5, 2003, two days before Russian parliamentary elections. Two months later, a device exploded on a subway car in Moscow, killing 41 people. Both incidents were blamed on Chechen separatists.

Nikolai P. Patrushev, head of the Federal Security Service, or FSB, the domestic successor to the Soviet-era KGB, said at an anti-terrorism meeting that Monday's incident meant security measures against extremists and terrorists must be strengthened in the run-up to parliamentary elections in December and a March presidential election in which a successor to Putin is expected to be chosen. Russia's Constitution requires Putin to step down next spring, at the end of his second term.

"Special responsibility lies with the anti-terrorist commissions in Russia's regions that . . . must provide for taking exhaustive measures to ensure reliable anti-sabotage and anti-terrorist protection of potentially vulnerable facilities, infrastructure and places crowded with people," Patrushev said in televised remarks.

Irina Alexandrova, a train attendant, told state-run television that she believed the train's speed had carried it over the 60-foot-high bridge, and that if it had been traveling more slowly it might have fallen off.

"We were thrown about from side to side," Vyacheslav Zinurov, a popular singer who was in a carriage near the end of the train, said in a televised interview.

"Then the wagon swerved to the left. Dust and stones were flying about. Some people fell on the floor, but then they all got up. They were consumed with fear, having no understanding of what was going on. The train came to a stop, and the attendant came in and shouted, 'Is everybody alive?' "

An explosion that derailed a train bound from Chechnya to Moscow on June 12, 2005, was triggered with electrical wires and a battery, Interfax said.

Chechen separatists were initially suspected in that blast, which seriously injured eight people. But two Russian nationalists were convicted in connection with the bombing and sentenced to nearly 20 years in prison.

Igor Klyamkin, vice president of the Liberal Mission Foundation, a Moscow think tank, expressed concern that Monday's blast could have been staged by people who want to create a crisis to encourage Putin to change the constitution and stay on for a third term. Putin has sufficient support in parliament and among the public to make such a course plausible, many observers say. He has stated repeatedly that he intends to step down.

"The tense factional struggle within the Kremlin as to who should succeed Putin as president makes it quite believable that we could be dealing with a provocation resulting from this fierce struggle at the top echelons of power," Klyamkin said.

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david.holley@latimes.com

Times staff writer Sergei L. Loiko contributed to this report.

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