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Power-packed Putin wakes up to mayhem

Moscow, Dec. 9 (Reuters): A suicide bomb attack killed at least five people in the heart of Moscow today, just two days after Russian voters handed President Vladimir Putin an even tighter grip on power.

After the explosion, bodies lay unattended on the pavement outside the plush National Hotel, near the capital’s main shopping street and opposite the Kremlin, where Putin was meeting parliamentarians. A woman’s severed head lay on the pavement.

“We can say with certainty that this was a terrorist act. This terrorist act was linked to the elections to the state Duma (parliament),” said Sergei Tsoi, a spokesman for Moscow’s mayor.

It was the second suicide bombing in Russia in five days and the second deadly bomb attack in the capital this year. The first one in July, which killed 15 people at an outdoor concert, was blamed on Chechen separatists.

Mayor Yuri Luzhkov said the explosion may have been the work of one or possibly two women suicide bombers.

Putin, speaking after the attack, called for new action to halt “terrorists”, saying they were trying to undermine Russia’s economic and democratic development. “The actions of criminals, terrorists which we have to confront even today are aimed against all that,” he said.

Police spokesman Kirill Mazurin said four people were killed outright. Another was reported to have died on the way to hospital and 13 people were wounded, five seriously.

Itar-Tass news agency said the bomb had been packed with nails and metal pieces, making its effect more devastating when it went off just before 11 am.

It quoted security sources as saying one of the suicide bombers had been on a police wanted list and was suspected of having undergone training at a camp for armed militants.

Police using a robot later set off a controlled explosion of a suitcase lying in the street.

The attack cast another shadow over Sunday’s election for parliament’s lower house, which handed an overwhelming victory to Putin’s political allies but was criticised in the west.

Two days before the vote, an apparent suicide attack on a commuter train near Russia’s rebel Chechnya region killed at least 44 people. The fourth such election since the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991 crushed Putin’s communist and liberal opponents and prompted warnings of a return to authoritarian rule.

The outcome, with the pro-Kremlin United Russia party winning nearly half the Duma seats, makes Putin’s re-election for a second term next March a near certainty.

But the US and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a rights and democracy watchdog, said United Russia had unfair access to state resources and media.

The outcome is also worrying international investors who, though hoping a stronger Putin can now push through more legal and economic reforms, fear it may also mean more state interference in the private sector.

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