NAZRAN, Russia (Reuters) - A suicide bomber killed 20 people and wounded 138 in Russia’s Ingushetia region on Monday, turning a simmering Islamist insurgency there into the biggest test of Kremlin control of its southern flank.
“Every day something happens on (Ingushetia’s)...territory,” President Dmitry Medvedev told senior officials in the southern city of Astrakhan. “And they are all links in the same chain, all consequences of terrorist activity.”
Medvedev sacked Ingushetia’s interior minister after the bombing, the latest in a string of assaults, linked by analysts to Islamist insurgents, against police and politicians in Russia’s poorest region, bordering Chechnya.
The bomb, packed into a yellow truck, exploded at the gates of the main police station in Nazran, Ingushetia’s largest city, as officers lined up at the start of their day.
Thick smoke billowed from the remains of the police station and firemen fought flames near the mangled gate of the compound. Dozens of people sifted through rubble and wrecked cars were scattered around a 4-meter (13 ft) wide crater.
“This act of terror could have been averted,” Medvedev said.
Ingush leader Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, who is recovering after a suicide bomb attack in June, said Monday’s blast was aimed at destabilizing the region, which has overtaken Chechnya as Russia’s main area of violence in its south.
“This is a big blow to the Kremlin,” said Tatyana Lokshina, an activist with Human Rights Watch (HRW) who travels regularly to the region. “The number of attacks has been growing for a while, but I can’t remember one as brazen as this.”
Rebellion in the northern Caucasus, where the Kremlin has fought two wars to subdue Chechen separatists, poses an implicit threat to the wider fabric of Russia. The Federation spans 11 time zones from the Baltic to the Pacific and embraces dozens of ethnic groups with their own cultural sensitivities.
The European Union, in a statement by the current Swedish presidency, said it condemned the “brutal act.”
The attack was the bloodiest in Ingushetia since 2004 when 92 people were killed when Chechen rebels took over the center of Nazran, said Kaloi Akhilgov, a spokesman for Yevkurov.
It was the biggest death toll from an attack in the North Caucasus since a similar attack on the city of Nalchik in 2005 in the nearby Kabardino-Balkaria region.
No one claimed responsibility for Monday’s attack.
Web site www.kavkazcenter.com, which has links to the Chechen separatist movement, praised the attack by calling the suicide bomber a “shakhid,” a word Islamist fighters use to describe martyrs.
Relatives crowded around a hand-written list of the dead at a local hospital and authorities declared three days of mourning.
Moscow sent an airplane with doctors aboard and evacuated the severely injured to the Russian southern city of Vladikavkaz for immediate treatment, the emergencies ministry said.
Estimates of the size of the bomb varied, but a source in the local prosecutor’s office said it was equivalent to one ton of TNT.
“The bomb could be heard throughout the city,” said resident Timur Akiyev. Residents were evacuated from a neighboring apartment block, whose windows were shattered by the blast.
A 38-year-old Nazran resident who identified himself only as Ilyas said he was even considering moving his business to neighboring Chechnya as he felt the situation there was safer.
Ingushetia has been plagued by violence in recent months. Locals say the insurgency has been fueled by a mix of desperate poverty, Islamic radicalism and heavy handed actions by the local security services.
Growing lawlessness and Islamist violence in neighboring Dagestan and Chechnya is also undermining Moscow’s control of the region. The rebel groups, though, are also divided and beset by factional infighting.
Russian news agencies reported two policemen were killed and at least one injured in Dagestan on Saturday, days after the bodies of the leader of a children’s charity and her husband were found in a car boot in Chechnya. Late on Monday, a blast in Dagestan’s capital Makhachkala killed a policeman.
Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, an ex-rebel turned Kremlin loyalist, said Monday’s bomb underscored his region’s need to fight militants together with Ingushetia.
“We have a common enemy and a common goal — to neutralize it (terrorism),” he was quoted as saying by RIA news agency.
Additional reporting by Ludmila Danilova in Moscow and Denis Dyomkin in Astrakhan; Writing by Conor Humphries and Amie Ferris-Rotman; Editing by Ralph Boulton