Wave of terror looming over the Caucasus?

Less than a week after the National Anti-Terror Committee said there had been a decline in terrorism within Russia, the city of Vladikavkaz became a target in the deadliest attack in almost a year. Thursday's bus blast in North Ossetia, which killed 12 pe

Police say the minibus explosion was a suicide bombing. In addition to the 12 fatalities, 41 people were injured.

All the victims are reportedly residents of North Ossetia. 11 of those killed in the blast have been identified by the North Ossetian Ministry of Internal Affairs.

What happened

Boris Digurov, the head doctor of a hospital in Vladikavkaz, said that two of the injured are in a very bad condition. He added that most of those hit by the blast were young people around 17-18 years old, many of whom were students at nearby universities.

The blast occurred at 2.45pm on Thursday in the busy centre of the city, where a market and a cinema are located. It reportedly had a force of around 300-500g of TNT equivalent, with a radius estimated at 150 metres.

The explosion is said to have occurred outside the minibus rather than inside, as there was no sign of explosives anywhere in the vehicle. Eyewitnesses say they remember a young woman walking next to the bus stop. They say the explosion happened when the bus neared the stop, which was full of people.

One of the witnesses, Taimuraz, said the blast wave threw away people from the stop. “I felt a flow of blood on me,” he said.

Another witness, Irina Kravchenko, says only luck saved her: “I bent down to lift my bag. Then there was a blast, somebody fell on me and then I remember nothing”.

The severed head of a suspected female suicide bomber was found at the scene. Investigators say they hope to identify the woman.

November 8 has been declared a day of mourning in North Ossetia.

Unstable Caucasus

On October 30, the first deputy head of the NAC, General Lieutenant Evgeny Ilyin, reported that over the last three years the number of terror acts in Russia has been decreasing.

“In 2005, 251 terror acts were registered, in 2006 – 112, in 2007 – 48, this year no large-scale attack has taken place in Russia,” he said.

So is the Vladikavkaz blast the beginning of a new wave of terror in Russia, and especially in its southern republics? According to political analyst Viktor Nadein-Raevsky from the Moscow-based Institute of World Economy and International Relations, the recent attack is a sign of the resurgent activities of the radical Islamist Wahhabi movement in the Caucasus. And their return is linked to Georgia’s attack on South Ossetia.

“Forces aiming to weaken Russia and to sever the Caucasus from it laid great hopes on Georgia’s attack,” he said. “These include both external forces and the so-called Wahhabi underground, who had planned a large-scale offensive in the Russian Caucasus in the wake of Georgia’s aggression. When it proved to be a failure these forces changed tactics.”

The analyst explains that the relatively calm situation in the Caucasus for almost a year only proves that Wahhabi had been gathering and co-ordinating efforts with outside forces.

He says to prevent further attacks the efficient work of security services is not enough.

“The way out is the settlement of social problems in the Caucasus. This will place Wahhabi on shaky ground. Also, the federal government should work together with local elders to prevent ethnic conflicts,” Nadein-Raevsky said.

The incident in Vladikavkaz occurred just a month after a deadly car bomb attack in the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinval, when seven Russian peacekeepers died.

The head of the Investigative Committee Aleksandr Bastrykin said on Friday that the Prosecutor General’s office has ruled out Georgia’s involvement in the blast. He said investigators are considering two main reasons behind the attack – “destabilising the situation in the Caucasus, or coming back to the Ossetian-Ingush conflict”.

Deadly record

The explosion in Vladikavkaz was the first suicide bombing since a series of hijacking suicide attacks in 2004.

Last year it was also public transport that became terrorist targets. In November 2007 five people were killed in a bus explosion in North Ossetia. Several weeks later, in December, another bus blast claimed two lives in the Stavropol region.