By Vladimir Isachenkov
MOSCOW: A suicide bomber struck a busy railway station in southern Russia on Sunday, killing at least 15 other people and wounding scores more, officials said, in a stark reminder of the threat Russia is facing as it prepares to host February’s Olympics in Sochi.
No one immediately claimed responsibility for the bombing in Volgograd, but it came several months after Chechen rebel leader Doku Umarov called for new attacks against civilian targets in Russia, including the Sochi Games.
Suicide bombings have rocked Russia for years, but many have been contained to the North Caucasus, the center of an insurgency seeking an Islamist state in the region. Until recently Volgograd was not a typical target, but the city formerly known as Stalingrad has now been struck twice in two months — suggesting militants might be using the transportation hub as a renewed way of showing their reach outside their restive region.
Volgograd, which is close to volatile Caucasus provinces, is 550 miles south of Moscow and about 400 miles northeast of Sochi, a Black Sea resort flanked by the North Caucasus Mountains.
The bombing highlights the daunting security challenge Russia will face in fulfilling its pledge to make the Sochi Games the “safest Olympics in history.” The government has deployed tens of thousands of soldiers, police and other security personnel to protect the games.
Through the day, officials issued conflicting statements on casualties. They also said the suspected bomber was a woman, but then reversed themselves and said the attacker could have been a man.
The Interfax news agency quoted unidentified law enforcement agents as saying that footage taken by surveillance cameras indicated that the bomber was a man. It also reported that it was further proven by a torn male finger ringed by a safety pin removed from a hand grenade, which was found on the site of the explosion.
The bomber detonated explosives in front of a metal detector just beyond the station’s main entrance when a police sergeant became suspicious and rushed forward to check ID, officials said. The officer was killed by the blast, and several other policemen were wounded.
“When the suicide bomber saw a policeman near a metal detector, she became nervous and set off her explosive device,” Vladimir Markin, the spokesman for the nation’s top investigative agency, said earlier in the day. He added that the bomb contained about 22 pounds of dynamite and was rigged with shrapnel.
Markin later told Interfax that the attacker could have been a man, but added that the investigation was still ongoing. He said that another hand grenade, which didn’t explode, was also found on the explosion site.
Markin said security controls prevented a far greater number of casualties at the station, which was packed with people at a time when several trains were delayed. About 40 were hospitalized, many in grave condition.
The International Olympics Committee expressed its condolences over the bombing, but said it was confident of Russia’s security preparation for the games.
“At the Olympics, security is the responsibility of the local authorities, and we have no doubt that the Russian authorities will be up to the task,” it said in a news release.
Russian authorities have introduced some of the most extensive identity checks and sweeping security measures ever seen at an international sports event.
Anyone wanting to attend the games that open on Feb. 7 will have to buy a ticket online from the organizers and obtain a “spectator pass” for access. Doing so will require providing passport details and contacts that will allow the authorities to screen all visitors and check their identities upon arrival.
The security zone created around Sochi stretches approximately 60 miles along the Black Sea coast and as far as 25 miles inland.