Bombing at Moscow a ‘terrorist attack’

2011-01-26 07:29

Terrorists struck again in the heart of Russia, with a suicide bomber blowing himself up in Moscow’s busiest airport and turning its international arrivals terminal into a smoky, blood-spattered hall of dismembered bodies, screaming survivors and abandoned suitcases. At least 35 people were killed, including two British travellers.

No one claimed responsibility for the blast at Domodedovo Airport on Monday that also wounded 180 people, although Islamic militants in the southern Russian region of Chechnya have been blamed for previous attacks in Moscow, including a double suicide bombing on the capital’s subway system in March last year that resulted in 40 deaths.

The Interfax news agency said the head of the suspected bomber had been found.

President Dmitry Medvedev called it a terrorist attack and immediately tightened security at Moscow’s two other commercial airports and other key transportation facilities.

It was the second time in seven years that Domodedovo was involved in a terrorist attack: In 2004, two female suicide bombers penetrated the lax security there, illegally bought tickets from airport personnel and boarded planes that exploded in flight and killed 90 people.

Medvedev cancelled plans to travel to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, today, where he was aiming to promote Russia as a profitable investment haven to world business leaders.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin ordered the health minister to send her deputies to hospitals to make sure the injured were getting the medical care they needed.

Russians still look to the tough-talking Putin as the leader they trust to guarantee their security, and Monday’s attack was likely to strengthen the position of the security forces that form part of his base.

Large-scale battles in Chechnya ended years ago, following two devastating wars that Russia waged with the republic’s separatists, but Islamic militants have continued to carry out suicide bombings and other attacks. Most have been in Chechnya and other predominantly Muslim provinces in the southern Caucasus region, but some have targeted Moscow, including its subways, trains and even a theatre.

In Washington, President Barack Obama condemned the “outrageous act of terrorism” and offered any assistance.

Those comments were echoed by British Prime Minister David Cameron, who spoke with Medvedev and assured him of his complete support.

Monday’s attack was most likely carried out by a suicide bomber and “attempts were being made to identify him”, Investigative Committee spokesperson Vladimir Markin said, adding that the attacker appeared to have been wearing the explosives on a belt.

The blast came at about 4.30pm, when hundreds of passengers and workers were in a loosely guarded part of the terminal. They were sprayed with shrapnel of screws and ball bearings, intended to cause as many casualties as possible.

The terminal filled with thick smoke as witnesses described a scene of horror.

“There was lots of blood, severed legs flying around,” said Yelena Zatserkovnaya, a Lufthansa official.

Airport workers turned baggage carts into makeshift stretchers to wheel the wounded to ambulances outside, she said.

Amateur video showed a pile of bodies on the floor, with other dead scattered around. Luggage also was strewn around the terminal and several small fires burned. A dazed man in a suit pushed a baggage cart through the haze.

Driver Artyom Zhilenkov said he was standing just a few metres away from a man who may have been the suicide bomber. He saw an explosion on or near the man, whose suitcase was on fire.

Zhilenkov said he initially thought he himself had been injured, but doctors said he was just coated in the blood of others.

“The guy standing next to me was torn to pieces,” he said.

Car rental agent Alexei Spiridonov was at his desk when the blast struck about 100 metres away and “threw me against the wall,” he said.

“People were panicking, rushing out of the hall or looking for their relatives. There were people just lying in blood,” Spiridonov said.

Sergei Lavochkin, who was waiting for a friend to arrive from Cuba, told Rossiya 24 television: “I heard a loud bang, saw plastic panels falling down from the ceiling and heard people screaming. Then people started running away.”

The Emergencies Ministry said 35 people were killed, 86 hospitalised with injuries and 94 were given medical treatment.

Among the dead were two British travellers, Markin said.

Domodedovo was briefly closed to air traffic immediately after the blast, but soon reopened. Hours later, passengers arriving for their flights lined up outside waiting to pass through metal detectors that had been installed at the entrances.

Aviation security experts have been warning since the September 11 2001 attacks in the US that the crowds at many airports present tempting targets to suicide bombers. Arrivals halls are usually open to anyone.

“Airports are by their nature crowded places, with meeters, greeters, commercial businesses, and so on,” said Philip Baum, the editor of Aviation Security International, a London-based publication.

The attack also called into question Russia’s ability to safely host major international events like the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi and the 2018 World Cup.

Fifa President Sepp Blatter was in St Petersburg over the weekend to formally award Russia the 2018 World Cup. Prior to the signing, Blatter told Putin that he was certain Fifa had made the right choice.

Built in 1964, Domodedovo is located 42 kilometres southeast of Moscow and is the largest of the three major airports that serve the capital, handling more than 22 million people last year. It is generally regarded as Moscow’s most modern airport, but its security has been called into question.

The airport insists security is one of its top priorities, saying on its website that its “cutting-edge operations technology guarantees the safety of passengers’ and guests’ lives”.

It says 77 airlines offer regular flights to Domodedovo, serving 241 international and national routes.

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