Moscow on edge over explosions

Three blasts in two weeks shake Russians' sense of safety. Will the

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

There remains little doubt that the Russian capital has been targeted for a deliberate terror campaign, after a powerful explosion, the third in two weeks, destroyed a Moscow housing block yesterday.

Precisely who is responsible for the blasts, which have claimed an estimated 200 lives, is still unclear. But like the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, the apparent attacks have left Russians feeling vulnerable and many are calling for a strong government response.

Except for a brief armed battle between presidential and parliamentary forces in 1993, Muscovites haven't known any serious threat to their security since World War II. "I'm afraid to go out and I'm afraid to stay home," says office worker Galina Syomova. "I blame [President Boris] Yeltsin.... The country is falling apart and he just keeps changing prime ministers. He should go."

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It remains to be seen how effective the government will be in addressing the threat, and how it may affect coming elections for parliament in December, and for president next June.

Mr. Yeltsin summoned his top ministers, as well as his political rival, Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, to an emergency meeting at the Kremlin yesterday and pledged to enact "swift and tough measures."

"The criminals have thrown down a sinister challenge. They are trying to scare the Russian people and intimidate the state," Yeltsin declared. "We already know who is behind the blasts: The name of the criminal is terrorism."

Mayor blames Islamic fighters

Mr. Luzhkov, a leading candidate to replace Yeltsin in next year's election, pointed his finger squarely at Islamic militants, backed by forces from the breakaway republic of Chechnya, who are fighting to wrest the southern province of Dagestan from Russian control.

"The source of this terrorism we are naming as Chechen bandits," Luzhkov said.

A special police team has been formed to deal with the emergency. Within 24 hours a heightened security regime is to be imposed at nuclear power stations, railroad stations, oil refineries, pipelines, and other strategic points across the country, Yeltsin said.

The president also stressed that any special measures would be in strict accord with Russia's Constitution and laws. Moscow has been rife with rumors that the Kremlin might try to exploit the public's rising fear by introducing a state of emergency, in which forthcoming elections might be canceled. Yeltsin's assurances appear to rule out that scenario, at least for now.

Calls for strong action

"There must be urgent steps taken immediately," says Oleg Sanderov, a Moscow shop manager. "Where is strong power? The authorities talk about fighting bandits, but now people are dying in Moscow, and nothing is done to stop it. I want to see strong power in action."

"The Kremlin is in a very tricky situation just now," says Pavel Ivanov, a security expert with the Institute of World Economy and International Relations in Moscow. "There is a public outcry demanding tough steps, and yet people are very suspicious of how the authorities might use any emergency powers they enact." The opposition-led Duma, or lower house of parliament, is meeting today to discuss the situation. A long-delayed law spelling out how a state of emergency could be declared may be placed on the agenda, according to the official ITAR-Tass news agency.

"These bombings have changed the political atmosphere in Moscow," says Mr. Ivanov. "Even the opposition are suddenly pushing for tougher police measures.... If more of these bombings occur, God forbid, public hysteria may push our politics in completely unpredictable directions."

The site of Monday's bombing was a jumbled pile of rubble. "This has to be stopped. Why doesn't our government do something?" asks Ivan Merkulov, a pensioner who lives nearby. Mr. Merkulov says he was thrown from his bed by the blast. Many neighbors agreed with Mayor Luzhkov that Chechen insurgents were behind the bombings, which could increase already common harassment of darker-skinned people from the Caucasus region, a significant Moscow minority.

A car bomb that destroyed a military-housing complex in Dagestan on Sept. 4, killing 64, was apparently coordinated with an offensive by Islamic rebels. But no one has yet claimed direct responsibility. Nor has anyone taken credit for the three Moscow blasts in the past two weeks. A small bomb that exploded in a downtown shopping mall on Aug. 31 now looks like the start of a terror campaign. On Thursday, a huge blast destroyed a suburban Moscow apartment house, leaving at least 93 dead.

Over the weekend in Dagestan, the Jordanian-born Islamic militant leader known as Khattab appeared to admit complicity in the attacks. "From now on we will not only fight against Russian fighter jets and tanks and such," he is quoted by the Associated Press as saying. "Let Russia await our explosions blasting through its cities." However, another leader, Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev, has denied any involvement in the Moscow blasts.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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