Clues in Russian Train Bombing Point to Caucasus

Second blast aimed at investigators mirrors tactic of North Caucasus militants.

MOSCOW Dec. 1, 2009 — -- Russia's chief investigator suggested today that militants from Russia's volatile south are to blame for the train blast north of Moscow that killed 27 people last week.

All 27 victims of Friday's train blast that derailed the high speed Nevsky Express north of Moscow have been found and identified, Russia's emergency services said today. Another 90 people were hospitalized in what officials labeled a terrorist attack.

Alexander Bastrykin said that the second explosion detonated by a cell phone on Saturday while investigators were on the scene suggests that the officials may have been the actual targets and that "such tactics are used by the terrorists in the North Caucasus."

The allegations came out in a preview of an interview to be published in the Rossiyskaya Gazeta on Wednesday.

Authorities are following new clues, saying today that they found a gray jacket with letters from a prison inmate in it near the scene of the explosion. On Monday they released a sketch of a male suspect as a stocky 50 to 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 man 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.

The train blast explosion Friday night derailed the last three cars on the Nevsky Express, a high-speed train traveling to St. Petersburg from Moscow. The bomb consisted of up to 15 pounds of explosives and detonated under the second-to-last car.

A Neo-Nazi group claimed responsibility on Saturday, but an attack by ultra-nationalists has been downplayed by many Russian security experts because of their lack of resources and expertise. They say that careful planning and execution point to separatist militants from the country's volatile North Caucasus region.

"It was well-prepared, well-planned, the target was chosen very well," said Nikolai Petrov at Moscow's Carnegie Center. "It means it was done by some organized force and by good professionals."

The Nevsky Express is a popular train that ferries officials, executives and tourists between Russia's two biggest cities, Moscow and St. Petersburg. Two federal officials and six foreigners were among the dead.

"What is very important is the fact that [the attack] was directed against political elites, that's why this train was chosen," said Petrov. "It was designed to have a huge impact and attract a lot of attention."

Parallels have been drawn with the 2007 bombing of the Nevsky Express which failed to derail the train or kill anyone, though around 60 were injured. Andrei Soldatov, editor of the security website, called Friday's attack an "improvement" on the methods used in 2007 and said it's possible that the same group of Islamic rebels was involved.

Two men from Chechyna's neighbor Ingushetia have been charged with the 2007 attack, though the man believed to have orchestrated it, Pavel Kosolapov, is still at large. It is unclear whether authorities suspect him of being behind Friday's bombing.

The official war against Chechnya's separatist insurgents is officially over, but violence in the North Caucasus has spiked this year with almost daily reports of clashes between security forces and rebels. In an attack similar to Friday's, train tracks in the republic of Dagestan were blown up Monday, though no one was hurt.

Friday's bombing about 250 miles north of Moscow is Russia's biggest terrorist attack outside of the North Caucasus since two passenger planes were downed in August of 2004. More attacks like last week's are possible, Soldatov argues, because the structure of the militant groups has changed, now consisting of smaller cells of three to five people that are more effective.

Russia's security forces have instead focused on preventing large-scale attacks that could politically destabilize regions of the country, he says, rather than smaller attacks that don't pose a threat.

"That's why there's no need to change the system because there is no threat to political stability," says Soldatov.

Nikolai Petrov agrees that attacks similar to Friday's causing "huge damage, huge losses" could happen again "due to the fact that Russian railroads and Russian authorities didn't learn anything from the previous attacks."

Meanwhile, the attack has shocked the Russian public, with moments of silence held over the weekend for the victims. Many agreed with the experts that that this could lead to a spate of attacks.

"It's tragic," said Alexander Nagornykh, a 53 year-old engineer. "I think this is the beginning of the new series of terrorist acts…I don't travel a lot but I think that the number of people traveling by train will go down."

Social worker Maria Sokolova said she wouldn't stop traveling, but admitted, "I'm afraid."

Seemingly undeterred, the Nevsky Express was back up and running just two days after the attack.