By Vladimir Isachenkov
MOSCOW: Two suicide bombings in as many days have killed 31 people and raised concerns that Islamic militants have begun a terrorist campaign in Russia that could stretch into the Sochi Olympics in February. Russian and international Olympic officials insisted the site of the games, protected by layers of security, is completely safe.
The attacks in Volgograd, about 400 miles from Sochi, reflected the Kremlin’s inability to uproot Islamist insurgents in the Caucasus who have vowed to derail the games, the pet project of President Vladimir Putin.
No one has claimed responsibility for Sunday’s blast at the Volgograd railway station or Monday’s bus explosion in the city, but they came only months after Chechen rebel leader Doku Umarov threatened new attacks on civilian targets in Russia, including the Olympics.
In addition to the dead, the bombings wounded 104 people, according to Russia’s Health Ministry.
Suicide bombings have rocked Russia for years, but the insurgents seeking to create an Islamic state have largely confined their attacks to the North Caucasus region in recent years. The blasts in Volgograd signaled that militants want to show their reach outside their native region.
Matthew Clements, a Russian defense and security expert at IHS Country Risk, said Caucasus militants could be targeting major transportation hubs like Volgograd to embarrass the Kremlin and discourage attendance at the Feb. 7-23 Olympics.
“Although the very strict security measures which will be in place at the Sochi Games will make it difficult to undertake a successful attack against the main Olympic venues, public transport infrastructure in Sochi and the surrounding Krasnodar territory will face an elevated risk of attack,” he said in a note.
Some experts say the perpetrators could also have been targeting Russia’s pride by hitting the city formerly called Stalingrad, which is known for the historic battle that turned the tide against Nazi Germany.
“Volgograd, a symbol of Russia’s suffering and victory in World War II, has been singled out by the terrorist leaders precisely because of its status in people’s minds,” Dmitri Trenin, the head of the Carnegie Endowment’s Moscow office, said in a commentary on the organization’s website.
A city of 1 million northeast of Sochi, Volgograd is a hub with railway lines running in five directions across the country and numerous bus routes connecting it to the volatile Caucasus provinces.
Security checks on buses have remained largely symbolic and easily avoidable, making them the transport of choice for terrorists in the region. And tighter railway security isn’t always enough to prevent casualties. In Sunday’s attack, a suicide bomber detonated an explosive in front of the train station’s metal detectors, killing 17 people, including the attacker.
Vladimir Markin, the spokesman for Russia’s main investigative agency, said Monday’s explosion involved a bomb similar to the one used Sunday, indicating that the two attacks were linked.
Markin said a suicide attacker was responsible for Monday’s bus explosion that killed at least 14 people.
Security at Russia’s railway stations and airports has been tightened after a male suicide bomber hit Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport in January 2011, killing 37 people and injuring more than 180. Two bombings on the Moscow subway in March 2010 by female suicide bombers killed 40 people and wounded more than 120.
Umarov, who had claimed responsibility for the 2010 and 2011 bombings, ordered a halt to attacks on civilian targets during the mass demonstrations against Putin in the winter of 2011-12. He reversed that order in July, urging his men to “do their utmost to derail” the Sochi Olympics, which he described as “satanic dances on the bones of our ancestors.”
Russian Olympic Committee Chief Alexander Zhukov insisted Monday that there was no need to take any extra steps to secure Sochi in the wake of the Volgograd bombings because “everything necessary already has been done.”
White House spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said the U.S. would welcome “closer cooperation” with Russia on security preparations for the safety of athletes, spectators and other participants at the Olympics.
Some observers have warned that terrorists may simply choose softer targets in the vicinity of Sochi to sow panic.
“Even if they succeed in protecting Sochi, there could be a series of major attacks near Sochi,” Anatoly Yermolin, a veteran KGB officer, told Ekho Moskvy radio.