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Russians wonder: Bomb plot or drill?

Doubts linger about what security services were doing at a Ryazan apartment building eight years ago.

March 04, 2007|David Holley | Times Staff Writer

RYAZAN, RUSSIA — Despite all the official denials, bus driver Alexei Kartofelnikov still thinks someone tried to blow up his home nearly eight years ago.

A series of bomb blasts that authorities blamed on Chechen terrorists already had destroyed four apartment buildings in Russia in September 1999, killing 310 people.

Kartofelnikov's vigilance led police to discover an apparent bomb made with sacks of white powder in the basement of his apartment block.

Two days later, the interior minister said authorities had prevented another attack. But the director of the Federal Security Service, or FSB, the main successor to the KGB, contradicted him, saying it was an exercise by his agency. The powder was just sugar, FSB Director Nikolai P. Patrushev said.

The Ryazan case might have remained a historical footnote had the Kremlin not launched its second war in Chechnya that month, a tough response that contributed greatly to the popularity of the new prime minister, Vladimir V. Putin. Riding that popularity, Putin was elected president six months later.

A series of Kremlin critics who demanded an independent investigation of the bombings have since died in murky circumstances. The latest were former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko, who was poisoned by radioactive polonium-210, and journalist Anna Politkovskaya. The latter, who focused on reports of abuses by Russian security forces in the separatist republic of Chechnya, was shot in her Moscow apartment building in October. The case remains unsolved.

Critics charge that the evidence suggests the FSB tried to plant a real bomb at Kartofelnikov's building. If that's true, they say, it indicates the spy agency also might have been behind the other bombings, in a bid to boost the popularity of Putin, a former KGB spy.

Litvinenko made that argument in a 2002 book, "Blowing Up Russia: Terror From Within," which he wrote with historian Yuri Felshtinsky. On his deathbed, Litvinenko accused Putin of ordering his killing. His death in November has given new prominence to doubts about Ryazan and the apartment bombings.

The charge that officials might be complicit in the apartment bombings was raised by challengers to Putin in the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections.

It could quickly become a political issue again if an attack or other emergency occurs during campaigning for parliamentary elections this year or the presidential election next year, said Andrei Kortunov, president of the New Eurasia Foundation, a Moscow think tank.

"That would immediately allow Putin critics to bring back the memories of those events, saying, 'The handwriting is very familiar, and wasn't something like that organized before the 2000 election to make Putin president?' " Kortunov said.

Andrei Nekrasov, a friend of Litvinenko who directed a 2004 film about the bombings, said he believed that the poisoning of Litvinenko might have been an attempt to eliminate a dangerous critic who was "determined to be as loud as possible."

The first of the apartment bombings, on Sept. 4, had killed 64 people in Buynaksk, in the republic of Dagestan, which borders Chechnya. Then, blasts in Moscow on Sept. 9 and Sept. 13 killed 228 people. The last explosion was Sept. 16 in Volgodonsk, 600 miles south of Moscow, which killed 18 people.

Kartofelnikov and his wife returned home to this provincial capital 100 miles southeast of Moscow from the countryside on Sept. 22, 1999. They had considered spending the night at their rural dacha, but instead came back to the 12-story apartment block where they and 76 other families lived.

Discovery by chance

Arriving home, Kartofelnikov noticed a car parked near the entryway. Someone had written "62," the auto license code for Ryazan, and taped it over part of the license plate. Underneath, he saw "77," the Moscow code. Suspicious, he called police.

The car was gone by the time police arrived. But in the basement, officers discovered what appeared to be a bomb made from three sacks of white powder, a detonator and a timer set for 5:30 a.m. The powder tested positive for hexogen, an explosive used in the bombings.

The next morning, Russia launched its second war in Chechnya, bombing the airport in the republic's capital, Grozny, in what Moscow said was a counterattack against terrorists. The separatist southern region had exercised de facto independence after defeating Russian forces in a 1994-1996 war.

A day later, then-Interior Minister Vladimir B. Rushailo, referring to the Ryazan incident, said another bombing had been averted; FSB Director Patrushev quickly contradicted him.

Muslims from southern Russia allegedly connected with Omar ibn Khattab, an Arab leader of Chechen separatists, eventually were convicted in all four bombings. Russian authorities said they had killed Khattab in 2002 but did not say how he had died. Chechen separatists say he was poisoned by a letter delivered by a messenger.

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