| Relatives wait for news outside Avtozavodskaya metro station in Moscow on Friday. (AFP)
Moscow, Feb. 6 (Reuters): A bomb blast ripped through a packed Moscow underground train in the early rush-hour today, killing at least 39 passengers and wounding more than 100.
Police called the blast which occurred between the Paveletskaya and Avtozavodskaya metro stations a “terrorist act”, and President Vladimir Putin, seeking re-election next month, accused Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov of being behind the explosion.
Survivors said the blast blew out carriage windows, shredded seats, twisted metal and sparked a fire. They had to walk about two km to safety after clambering from the wrecked train, which had been crammed with commuters into the capital.
Putin blamed Chechen rebels, fighting for independence for their Muslim Caucasus homeland, of being responsible. They have struck in Moscow before.
“We do not need any indirect confirmation. We know for certain that Maskhadov and his bandits are linked to this terrorism,” he told reporters.
A spokesperson for the fugitive separatist leader said neither Maskhadov nor his separatist government were “connected to this bloody provocation and unequivocally condemn it”.
The blast occurred at 0530 GMT in the second carriage as the train sped through a tunnel towards Moscow’s busy Paveletskaya station.
Police at first ascribed the explosion to a suicide bomber. But later other officials said the bomb might have been planted on the train.
“As of now, there are 39 dead and 129 people being treated for injuries in hospital,” deputy interior minister Alexander Chekalin said. The city’s health department said 21 of those being treated were in a critical condition.
Moscow deputy mayor Valery Shantsev said the bomb had been packed with five kilos of explosives.
President George W. Bush, who has formed a close bond with Putin because of the latter’s support for the US war on terror, telephoned the Kremlin leader to offer his condolences. A Kremlin statement said the two men expressed determination “to step up joint efforts to oppose the terrorist threat.”
Police issued a description of a suspect — a round-faced man, aged between 40-45 with looks typical of someone from the Caucasus.
Train driver Vladimir Gorelov, who radioed to have high voltage lines switched off on the track, said: “There was no panic, no stampede, people behaved very calmly, very well. It was only when I received confirmation that the power was off I opened the door and started to lead people away.”
Chechen separatists have staged several bomb attacks — some by female suicide bombers — in Moscow and elsewhere in Russia in their campaign for independence. In July 2003 two Chechen women blew themselves up at an open-air music festival, killing 14 other people.
Putin, widely expected to win a March 14 election, used the Chechnya issue to boost his popularity when he was first elected to the Kremlin in 2000.
Talking tough after apartment block bombings in Moscow and elsewhere in September 1999 helped him get elected a few months later.
More than 200 people were killed in those attacks for which two Chechen-trained fighters have been jailed. Chechen rebels accuse Russian secret services of being behind the attacks.
Though such attacks never dent his popularity, Putin said today he felt they could be used as political ammunition against him in next month’s poll, Itar-Tass news agency said.
News of the explosion rattled Moscow’s financial markets helping send the dollar-denominated RTS index down nearly 2 per cent at the opening. The rouble was also slightly weaker.
“The explosion was at the front of the second carriage in a tunnel. As soon as the train stopped people began climbing out through windows and doors,” an eyewitness, Lyudmila, 31, said.
Many of those in a serious condition were being treated for carbon monoxide poisoning as well as broken limbs and burns.