MOSCOW (Reuters) - Chechen rebels claimed responsibility on Friday for a Siberian dam disaster as part of an economic war against Russia, but the Kremlin dismissed the claim and financial markets ignored it.
The claims posted on the unofficial Islamist rebel website www.kavkazcenter.com contradicted experts and officials, who said dilapidated Soviet-era infrastructure was to blame for a water surge at Russia’s biggest hydroelectric dam on Monday which killed up to 75 people.
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin visited the stricken Sayano- Shushenskaya dam in southern Siberia on Friday, inspecting the damage, speaking to rescue workers and consoling relatives.
“We will replace the iron but we will never replace the people,” Putin, dressed in a black suit and showing uncharacteristic emotion, told a news conference. “One cannot even remember when we had an accident on this scale.”
Putin gave the clearest official signal so far that the 49 people still missing should be presumed dead, ordering payments of 1 million roubles per person ($31,650) to be paid from the federal budget for those missing and dead.
Near the pool of green sludge that filled the massive hole in the engine room, one worker told Reuters he was on duty when a tower of water ripped through the floor.
“I’m a grown man, but for me it was totally frightening. Thirteen of my friends were in there,” he said, declining to give his name as he was not authorized to speak to the press.
Putin and other top officials did not comment on the rebel claims of responsibility for the disaster, which were also ignored by Russia’s state-controlled media.
A wave of Islamist-inspired violence continued in the country’s mainly Muslim North Caucasus.
In the Chechen capital Grozny, newly rebuilt after two devastating secessionist wars, suicide bombers on bicycles carried out two separate attacks on Friday killing at least four policemen, the republic’s Interior Ministry said.
Blood and body parts could be seen near the charred remains of a bicycle and a police car at the site of one of the explosions. A series of bombings have shaken Grozny in recent months, shattering a few years of relative calm following the separatist wars.
Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, an ex-rebel turned Kremlin loyalist, said residents were calm and efforts by the authorities to hunt out other “bandits” was successful.
“At the moment we are working on finding the other suicide bombers. I can say that it is going well,” he told reporters at the site of one of the attacks.
At the start of the week, Sayano-Shushenskaya, Russia’s biggest hydroelectric dam, was crippled by a surge of water through the machine room, destroying three of the dam’s 10 huge turbines, drowning dozens of workers and dumping a long oil slick in the Yenisei river.
A few hours later a powerful truck bomb exploded at a police headquarters in the southern republic of Ingushetia, killing at least 25 people.
The Kakvaz Center website’s statement was signed by the “Battalion of Martyrs,” which claimed to have planted an anti-tank grenade in the machine hall of the dam and to have carried out the Ingush bombing.
The group seeks to end Russian rule in the North Caucasus and establish in its place an Islamic “emirate.” Kavkaz Center posted the statement on the first day of Ramadan, the holiest month for Muslims.
“Kavkazcentre has received an email signed by the commander of the Battalion of Martyrs “Riyadus-Salikhiyn” in which it is stated that the mujahideen of this unit carried out a martyrs’ operation in Nazran and carried out a major subversive action in Russia, disabling the Sayano-Shushenskaya hydro-electric dam,” the website said.
“...The worry among the infidel leadership showed that this operation dealt a heavy blow and this work will continue to be carried out in the name of Allah.”
NO TRACE OF EXPLOSIVES
Russian prosecutors investigating the dam disaster said on Friday bomb specialists from the FSB domestic intelligence service had found no traces of explosives.
Independent Caucasus analysts were doubtful about the rebel claim, which also announced that groups of fighters had been sent across Russia to attack oil and gas pipelines, power plants and electricity lines.
“If there were a competition in lies between this website and Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), I am not sure who would win,” said Yulia Latynina, a Russian opposition journalist who specializes in the North Caucasus.
“In the case of terrorist attacks, notification about who has carried out an attack usually happens at the time of the attack. The dam accident happened on Monday morning. If this website had placed the announcement half an hour before that, their claim would have been plausible.”
Experts and engineers had said dilapidated machinery was responsible for the accident. The dam’s turbines, owned by part- privatized company RusHydro, had not been overhauled for decades and had passed their theoretical maximum lifespan.
Alexei Malashenko, a Caucasus expert at the Moscow Carnegie Center think-tank, described the claim as “propaganda.” He said Chechen rebels had in the past taken responsibility for events generally accepted as accidents, including a fire in Moscow’s Ostankino television tower and a mass blackout in the capital.
Financial markets shrugged off the claim. The rouble did not react and pared losses to stand about 4 kopecks below Thursday’s close against a basket of currencies.
The MICEX share index traded little change for most of the day but strengthened toward the close and was up 1.5 percent at 1319 GMT.
Additional reporting from Moscow by Amie Ferris-Rotman, Dmitry Solovyov, Guy Faulconbridge, Simon Shuster, Melissa Akin, Oleg Shchedrov, Robin Paxton, Gleb Bryanski and Conor Humphries and from Siberia by Katya Golubkova; editing by Andrew Dobbie
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