VLADIKAVKAZ, Russia A suspected suicide bomber killed 11 people outside a Russian market on Thursday, prosecutors said, in one of the worst attacks in months to hit Russia's turbulent North Caucasus region.
The explosion detonated as a minibus taxi pulled up outside the main market in the southern Russian city of Vladikavkaz, killing passengers and ripping the doors off one side of the vehicle. Prosecutors said they suspected a terrorist attack.
"According to preliminary information, the explosive device was detonated by a female suicide bomber," the press service of North Ossetian leader Taimuraz Mamsurov said in a statement posted on his official Web site www.rso-a.ru.
Mamsurov, who held an emergency meeting with his security chiefs, told Russian news agencies the head of a woman, believed to be the suicide bomber, had been found at the scene.
The attack was fresh evidence that despite largely quelling a separatist rebellion in nearby Chechnya, Russia is struggling to contain violence in its southern regions that has fueled instability and killed thousands of people.
"Today in the center of Vladikavkaz an explosion occurred as a result of which 11 people were killed," the investigative unit of the Prosecutor General's Office said in a statement. "A criminal case has been opened ... (for) murder and terrorism."
Mamsurov said nine people were killed and about 40 injured.
He declared November 8 a day of mourning in North Ossetia.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev ordered police and state security agencies to tighten security and to keep him informed about the investigation, the Kremlin press service told Reuters.
The United States condemned the explosion in Vladikavkaz as "a heinous act of terrorism" and expressed its condolences to the families of the victims and the government of Russia.
"There can be no justification for such terrorism," State Department spokesman Robert Wood said in a statement.
Vladikavkaz is in Russia's North Ossetia region, scene of the Beslan siege in 2004 in which more than 300 people were killed after their school was taken hostage by gunmen linked to a separatist rebellion in Chechnya.
SCENE OF CARNAGE
Footage recorded at the scene of the blast by a Reuters cameraman showed the mangled white minibus, with several disfigured corpses lying on the ground around it.
The body of one woman was covered with a pink sheet and her handbag laid on top. Fruit lay scattered around the minibus and windows were shattered in a building 30 metres (yards) away.
"We were standing at the stop waiting for our minibus when an explosion banged nearby," Jerassa Gagloyeva, a 19-year-old student whose face was lightly singed by the shockwave, told Reuters at a local clinic.
"We were so scared we just ran away. When the initial shock passed we turned for medical assistance." Jerassa was accompanied by a friend with light burns on her face and hands.
Moscow's forces have been struggling to contain an insurgency in the North Caucasus, a patchwork of mainly Muslim regions which are among the poorest in Russia.
Chechnya is now firmly under the control of the Kremlin and its local allies, but in the past few years the violence has shifted to neighboring regions.
Analysts say the insurgency is driven by a mix of clan rivalry, frustration at widespread poverty and militant Islamist groups who want to overthrow Moscow's rule.
North Ossetia has tense relations with the neighboring Russian region of Ingushetia that stem from an outbreak of sectarian violence in 1992 in which hundreds were killed.
North Ossetia has a mainly Christian population. It shares a border and a common ethnic identity with the Georgian separatist region of South Ossetia, which was the focus of a brief war between Moscow and Tbilisi in August.
(Additional reporting by Dmitry Solovyov and Ludmila Danilova in Moscow; Writing by Guy Faulconbridge and Christian Lowe)