NAZRAN, Russia, (AP) – A suicide bomber exploded a truck at a police station in Russia’s North Caucasus on Monday, killing at least 19 people and wounding nearly 70 others, officials said.
The bombing was the deadliest in months in the restive southern region, denting Kremlin claims that the area was stabilizing after 15 years of separatist fighting in Chechnya and violence in surrounding provinces.
The attacker rammed the gates of the Nazran city police headquarters, in Ingushetia province, and detonated his explosives as police officers were lining up for a morning check, said Svetlana Gorbakova of the regional branch of the Investigative Committee of the Russian Prosecutor General’s office.
Police had fired shots at the truck, but failed to stop it. The blast triggered a fire that raged for hours, destroying a weapons room where ammunition detonated.
A nearby apartment building and several office buildings were also damaged, and burned-out cars littered the street.
At least 19 people were killed and 68 others wounded, including 10 in critical condition, Gorbakova said.
An Associated Press reporter saw 11 badly burned bodies at a morgue in Nazran, the largest city in Ingushetia, which borders Chechnya to the west.
Local authorities announced a three-day mourning.
The attacker and the truck were pulverized by the blast, said Svetlana Gorbakova of the regional branch of the Investigative Committee of the Russian Prosecutor General’s office.
While large-scale fighting from the two wars that ravaged Chechnya since 1994 has ended, Islamic militants continue to mount regular hit-and-run attacks and skirmishes. Bloodshed has surged in recent months and increasingly spilled into provinces neighboring Chechnya.
Ingushetia’s Kremlin-appointed president, Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, was badly wounded in a suicide bombing in June and has yet to return to his duties.
Yevkurov said Monday’s suicide attack had been organized by militants trying to avenge recent security sweeps in the forests along the mountainous border with Chechnya.
“It was an attempt to destabilize the situation and sow panic,” Yevkurov said in a statement issued through his spokesman.
Speaking in an interview with Russian News Service radio, Yevkurov blamed Chechen separatist warlord Doku Umarov for staging June’s suicide attack on his convoy. He said law enforcement had tracked down the perpetrators of the attack, and would hunt down Umarov and other rebel warlords.
Yevkurov, a former officer of the Russian GRU military intelligence service, also accused the United States, Britain and Israel of fomenting instability in the North Caucasus.
“The West will try to prevent Russia from restoring its Soviet-era might,” he said in the interview, without elaborating.
Rights groups said that arbitrary arrests, torture and killings by security forces had helped swell the ranks of rebels in Ingushetia under Yevkurov’s predecessor, Murat Zyazikov. Yevkurov has promised to end abuses and sought to negotiate pardons for some rebels who would agree to put down their weapons.