Bomb explosions in southern Russia kill at least 21

Saturday, March 24th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

MOSCOW (AP) _ Three nearly simultaneous car bomb blasts killed at least 21 people and injured more than 100 others Saturday in southern Russia near the breakaway republic of Chechnya.

Top Russian officials said there were serious reasons to suspect that Chechen rebel leaders were behind the blasts, but gave no hard evidence. There were no claims of responsibility for the explosions.

Nineteen people were killed and 85 were seriously wounded when a bomb exploded near the entrance of a farmers' market in the city of Mineralnye Vody, according to Col. Alexander Lemeshev, the duty officer for the Emergency Situations Ministry in the northern Caucasus.

He said another 16 people were lightly injured in the blast, caused by a bomb placed in a car near the market and detonated by remote control.

Russian television showed bodies and bloody, burst shopping bags strewn around the area, and investigators studying the singed, mangled Zhiguli sedan.

A nearly simultaneous blast in the nearby town of Yessentuki in the Stavropol region injured 13 people, police officials said. Two Interior Ministry inspectors were killed in a third car bomb explosion on a highway in the Karachayevo-Cherkessia region.

The explosion in Yessentuki came when bomb placed inside a car was detonated near the entrance to a highway police department, an Interior Ministry official said.

Mineralnye Vody, Yessentuki and Karachayevo-Cherkessia are all located within 100 miles northwest of Chechnya.

``Gunmen always talk about the about the necessity to commit acts of terror to keep the Russian population in tension, and even this alone gives grounds to consider separatists involved in today's acts of terror,'' presidential aide Sergei Yastrzhembsky said.

The Federal Security Service and the chief of Russia's influential Security Council also suggested Chechens were behind the blasts.

Large-scale fighting in Chechnya ended months ago, but rebels continue to inflict casualties on Russian forces by attacking their positions at night, ambushing their convoys in broad daylight and seeding the province with land mines.

Russian forces withdrew from Chechnya at the end of the previous, 1994-96 war. The troops returned in 1999 after rebels invaded a neighboring Russian region and after apartment building bombings killed 300 people in Moscow and other cities. The Kremlin blamed rebels for the blasts, a charge Chechen leaders denied.

Police in the southern regional capital of Stavropol said there were similarities in Saturday's explosions, the Interfax news agency reported. In all three, Zhiguli cars were stuffed with explosives and they were activated within minutes of each other at around 10 a.m., the officials said.

President Vladimir Putin was informed of the explosions during his regular Saturday meeting with top officials in the Kremlin, a spokesman for Yastrzhembsky said. The spokesman said one person had been detained in connection with the Karachayevo-Cherkessia blast.

Putin ordered Prosecutor General Vladimir Ustinov and Deputy Interior Minister to fly to the Stavropol region to open an investigation into the explosions.

He also sent a telegram to the families, saying: ``Once again blood has been shed, once again civilians have become victims of cruel terrorist acts. Extremely rigorous measures will be taken to find and punish those who ordered and executed these base murders.''

Police in Moscow were put on alert following the blasts Saturday. Traffic patrols at entrances to the city have been beefed up and officers were instructed to check all trucks and cars from other regions for explosives, Interfax said.