A suicide bomber detonated an explosives-packed Volga sedan at the entrance to a crowded marketplace at midday Thursday in Vladikavkaz, capital of the volatile north Caucasus republic of North Ossetia, killing 17 people and injuring 123.
Russian TV news showed the jumbled wreckage of burned-out cars and smashed market stalls in the wake of the bomb, which experts said
was equal to 40 kilograms of TNT and packed with nails and ball bearings (Russian news video).
Officials appear in little doubt that the attack is the latest in a string of increasingly bold actions by resurgent Islamist militants who have frequently struck targets in mainly Christian, pro-Moscow North Ossetia in the past.
The worst such attack came six years ago, when militants seized a North Ossetian school in Beslan with more than 1,000 hostages. Russian troops stormed the school three days later and more than 330 people, half children, died amid the ensuing mayhem.
The region's other six ethnic republics are mainly Muslim by tradition, and all are increasingly shaken by a small but growing Islamist insurgency.
"We will do our best to track down the beasts who committed this terrorist act against ordinary people, a heinous terrorist act," President Dmitry Medvedev said in a telephone conversation with North Ossetian leader Taimuraz Mamsurov. "We will do everything to find them and punish them in accordance with our country's law, and destroy them if they offer resistance," he added.
In a meeting with Muslim clerics, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said the bombing was likely staged to trigger a religious backlash from North Ossetia's population, and called on moderate Muslims to denounce terrorist tactics.
"Crimes like the one that was committed today in Vladikavkaz are aimed at promoting enmity between people," the official RIA-Novosti agency quoted Mr. Putin as saying. "We cannot allow that. And of course, Muslims must play the decisive role in this struggle."
Violent attacks in the north Caucasus region are an almost daily affair, but they have escalated sharply in recent weeks. Last week a suicide bomber rammed an explosives-laden car into a Russian military base in Buinaksk, Dagestan, killing 5 soldiers and wounding 36. Another Dagestan bombing derailed a train early this week just outside the capital Makhachkala. In another republic, Kabardino-Balkaria, Islamist insurgents are blamed for the murder of a judge early this week.
Officials in Moscow say they are stepping up security out of concern that the violence could spread beyond the north Caucasus to Russia's heartland, as it did last March when twin suicide bombings killed almost 40 people in Moscow's crowded metro at the height of morning rush hour.