A week of extremist attacks on Russia's seething southern flank climaxed Monday with a suicide truck bombing in Ingushetia that killed at least 20 and injured scores outside a police station in the tiny republic's main city, Nazran.
The resulting explosion triggered a "raging fire" that destroyed a weapons room, incinerated nearby cars, and damaged nearby apartment buildings, according to an Associated Press (AP) report from Nazran. It was one of the deadliest attacks in the region in years, the AP said.
Violence by Islamist insurgents, once confined mainly to separatist Chechnya, has gradually spread throughout much of Russia's northern Caucasus, leaving Russian authorities increasingly unable to guarantee order, or even protect pro-Moscow officials, in the mainly Muslim region. (See map.)
For Moscow, the stakes are huge. The northern Caucasus region is Russia's gateway to the energy-rich and strategically vital southern Caucasus, which includes the former Soviet nations of Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia.
Worsening violence in the area could seriously disrupt the planned 2014 Winter Olympics in nearby Sochi, into which former President Vladimir Putin invested about $12 billion along with his own personal prestige.
Concerns Moscow could lose control
Long-simmering concerns that Moscow could lose control in the volatile northern Caucasus, where Chechen rebels have waged a persistent insurgency since 1991, are spiking again given the past week of attacks.
Monday's bombing in Ingushetia, which blew a huge hole in Nazran's fortified police headquarters, was reminiscent of attacks carried out by Chechen rebels at the height of that insurgency against Russian troops in the early days of Mr. Putin's 2000-08 term.
Over the weekend, at least two gun battles between police and separatist insurgents in Chechnya itself left about a dozen people dead and made the Kremlin's boast of restoring order in that troubled republic look increasingly hollow.
Last week, insurgents killed four police officers at a checkpoint in Buinaksk, near Dagestan's border with Chechnya.
And in Ingushetia, where violence has been spiking in recent months, three gunmen shot an killed a female fortune-teller this past Thursday. Occultists are a common target of Islamist extremists, who regard them as blasphemers, occording to Russian press reports. The previous day, insurgents assassinated Ingushetia's construction minister in his own heavily guarded office.
Cracks in Moscow's strategy to contain Caucasus
Russia's northern Caucasus includes eight republics, six of which are populated mainly by Muslims, that were conquered and incorporated into the Russian Empire in the 19th century.
The Kremlin seemed to find a winning formula in handing power to a local pro-Moscow strongman, Ramzan Kadyrov, who pacified the republic by co-opting former rebels into his personal security corps and allegedly launching a wave of terror to suppress any dissent against his rule.
Several human rights activists who attempted to report on Mr. Kadyrov's methods have been killed in recent months.
But attempts to install similarly effective local bosses in other republics, notably Ingushetia, have proven less successful.
In June, Ingushetia's recently appointed president, Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, received grave injuries in a car-bombing, from which he is still recovering. Mr. Yevkurov blamed Monday's attack on militants retaliating against heightened security measures along the border with Chechnya, reported the Associated Press.
"It was an attempt to stablize the situation and sow panic," said the president in a statement.