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41 killed as blast rips apart Russia commuter train

Rostov-on-Don (Russia), Dec. 5 (Reuters): A suspected suicide bombing devastated a commuter train near Russia’s rebel Chechnya region today, killing 41 people in an attack President Vladimir Putin said was intended to disrupt weekend elections.

Russia’s justice minister said the attack, two days before the parliamentary poll, bore the hallmarks of Chechen militants who have fought Russian forces for a decade. The blast before 8 am tore through the second carriage of the train just outside the spa town of Yessentuki as it was packed with students and workers heading for morning shifts. More than 150 people were injured.

Rescue workers sifted through a tangled mass of metal and restored overhead power lines. Schoolbags, shattered glass and sheets of twisted metal littered the adjacent rail bed, but the train remained upright on the tracks.

“The criminal act which was committed today was an attempt to destabilise the situation in the country on the eve of parliamentary elections,” Putin said during Kremlin talks with top security officials. “I am sure the criminals will get nothing out of this, Russians themselves will not allow it,” a grim-faced Putin said in televised comments.

Terrorism, he said, remained a “cruel, treacherous, dangerous enemy. It is above all innocent people who suffer.”

Justice minister Yuri Chaika said evidence pointed to the “activities of Chechen terrorists, aimed at demoralising people... ”

Nikolai Patrushev, director of the FSB counter-intelligence agency Putin once headed, said three women and one man had carried out the attack. Two women had leapt from the train minutes before the blast. Eyewitnesses said the blast shook the surrounding area.

“The blast was so strong that it smashed all the windows,” an elderly woman told First Channel television. “The cup of tea I was drinking was sent flying. I felt as though I had been picked up and put back down again.”

Witness Gleb Kovalenko told Rossiya state television the blast had occurred inside the carriage. Smoke and ash covered the area around the wreck.

Interior minister Boris Gryzlov, head of the United Russia party backed by President Vladimir Putin in Sunday’s elections, vowed to track down the perpetrators. “We will find those who did this,” Gryzlov was quoted as saying by Interfax news agency. “The ground will burn under their feet. These animals will never be able to feel safe.”

A large planeload of rescue workers and equipment set off from Moscow to help teams at the site.

The blast took place in Stavropol region to the north of Chechnya, where tens of thousands of Russian forces still come under daily rebel attack. It was the second such attack in three months on the same rail line linking spa towns. The most extreme wing of Chechen separatists has resorted to suicide bombings generally carried out by women. Dozens of people have died in attacks in Chechnya and elsewhere in Russia.

Polls on Sunday point to gains for United Russia, backed by Putin, who has taken a hard line against Chechen separatism and sent Russian forces back into the region in 1999.

In September, an explosion ripped through an early morning commuter train in Stavropol region, killing six people, but police said at the time it was not the work of Chechen rebels.

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