An Islamist separatist group from Russia's volatile North Caucasus claimed responsibility Wednesday for the Nov. 27 train bombing that killed 26, the worst terrorist attack outside of that region in five years.
In a letter posted on a Web site linked to Chechen militant groups, the Caucasian Mujahedeen writes that a "special operations group" carried out the orders of their leader, Doku Umarov, the self-proclaimed "Emir of the Caucasus Emirate."
"These acts of sabotage will continue for as long as those occupying the Caucasus do not stop their policy of killing ordinary Muslims," the message posted on KavkazCenter.com reads.
Umarov is one of the most wanted men in Russia, a longtime Chechen militant who has led the fight against Russian control of the region for much of the past two decades. Authorities do not have any evidence that the group was involved and refused to comment, the Interfax news agency reported Wednesday. The group's claim has not been verified.
The claim could very well be false, says Nikolai Petrov, an expert on the North Caucasus at Moscow's Carnegie Center who believes that North Caucasus elements were involved. He said not to "pay serious attention" because it is in Umarov's interest to claim responsibility whether he was involved or not.
"In his position, it's good to show that he is not only alive but pretty active and capable to organize attacks," says Petrov.
A Russian official said Wednesday that Friday's attack could have derailed two trains, but the Nevsky Express was running late.
"Things could have been much worse," said emergency services official Leonid Belyayev, according to Russian news agencies. "At that moment, two trains were to pass by each other - the Nevsky Express and the ER-200. The Nevsky Express was one minute late, or three kilometers off, given its speed."
All 26 victims of the Nevsky Express blast 250 miles north of Moscow have been found and identified, Russia's emergency services said Tuesday. Another 90 people have been hospitalized and some 150 have sought psychological treatment.
Russia's chief investigator had suggested Tuesday that militants from Russia's volatile south are to blame. Alexander Bastrykin told the Rossiyskaya Gazeta that a second explosion detonated by a cell phone Nov. 28 while investigators were combing the scene suggests that they may have been the actual targets and that "such tactics are used by the terrorists in the North Caucasus."
Bastrykin was injured in the second blast but is reportedly in "satisfactory" condition. Authorities are following new clues, saying Tuesday that they found a gray jacket with letters from a prison inmate in it about 300 feet from scene of the explosion. On Monday they released a sketch of a male suspect as a stocky 50-55 year-old who was wearing a red wig.
Police also released a basic description of a second man suspected in the bombing, described as a tall, dark-haired and in his 30s.
Authorities told state-run news agency RIA Novosti that they are also looking for a woman in a light-colored jacket driving a Lada car.
The police have located a house where they believe the suspects were based and found four sets of DNA, including a woman's, officials said.