An explosion killed at least seven people and wounded more than 40 others Wednesday evening in Stavropol, a southern Russian city that had seemed immune from growing violence in the north Caucasus.
Authorities said a remote or timer-controlled bomb went off outside the House of Culture and Sport, near the city center, shortly before the start of a concert by a dance company linked with Kremlin-backed Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov. Stavropol is the administrative seat of the ethnically Russian Stavropol Territory, which borders the embattled, mainly Muslim republics of Chechen and Dagestan republics (map).
Authorities say the explosion was equivalent to about a pound of TNT, reports RIA Novosti. Reuters reports that the bomb was equivalent to 400 grams of TNT, and disguised as a pack of juice. No one has yet claimed responsibility for the blast, but police found an improvised explosive device, a gun, and ammunition while searching the homes of two suspects.
Investigators opened a criminal case under terrorism laws, the prosecutor general’s office said in a statement.
The explosive used in the attack appeared to be homemade, reports Russian video news outlet RT, and was packed with shrapnel. A 12-year-old girl was among those killed.
“About 15-20 minutes before the start of the concert we heard an explosion. We saw the blast had practically flung aside the crowd that had gathered outside … about 100-150 people,” Rustam, an eyewitness, told Ekho Moskvy radio, according to Reuters.
The city has rarely been the target of terror strikes. RT quoted Nikolay Petrov from the Carnegie Moscow Center as saying the attack signals spreading terror in the region. The city is 150 miles from Sochi, planned site of the 2014 Winter Olympics, where Putin has staked $17 billion of the state’s money and his own personal prestige on the upcoming Olympic Games.
Many are worried that the unrest in the Caucasus could disrupt the Games.
“This is very alarming,” political scientist Olga Kryshtanovskaya told the Christian Science Monitor after March bombings in Dagestan. “We’re facing an enemy that wants to destabilize the situation for political purposes. Russia’s prestige is at stake here. And if we can’t cope with terrorists in our own capital city, how can we hope to prevent them from disrupting a big international event like the Olympics?”
The Dagestan suicide bombings killed 12 people and wounded dozens more in attacks that came on the heels of the devastating Moscow metro bombings.
The north Caucasus have long simmered with violence, particularly in Chechnya, where separatists sought to break away from Russia. But while Moscow has largely tamed the Chechen separatist movement, the nationalist threat has morphed into one with jihadist overtones.
Some experts worry that a network of Islamist insurgents led by Chechen Doku Umarov, who took responsibility for the suicide bombings that killed 40 people at two Moscow metro stations, may be planning a new wave of assaults, according to the Monitor.
Russian authorities vowed today to punish those responsible for the most for the Stavropol blasts, reports AFP.
“This is an audacious provocation,” regional governor Valery Gayevsky said in comments released by his administration.
“Someone wants to shake loose the friendly relations between the peoples and republics. These forces do not want peace in the Caucasus. But we will put them in their place,” he said.
Gayevsky spoke by telephone with President Dmitry Medvedev late at night, telling the Kremlin chief about the situation with the injured and the investigation.
“The head of state expressed condolences to the families of the tragedy’s victims,” the Stavropol regional administration said in a statement.
Authorities in Stavropol have declared May 28 a day of mourning. “Entertainment programs scheduled for Friday will be dropped from TV and radio schedules and concerts will be postponed across the region. Flags will also fly at half-mast,” reports RIA Novosti.