| A woman grieves for the victims of the plane crashes in a Moscow church. (AFP)
Moscow, Aug. 27 (Reuters): Explosives of a kind used by Chechen rebels have been found in one of two airliners that crashed almost simultaneously, pointing to a terrorist attack, Russian investigators said today.
The FSB security service declined to comment on an Internet claim by an Islamist group that its followers had brought the planes down on Tuesday, killing at least 89 people, to avenge the killing of Muslims in Russia’s rebel Chechnya province.
But it said it had identified “a number of people with possible links to the terrorist act”.
Investigators were tracing the background of two passengers with Chechen surnames, one from each plane.
Chechnya’s Islamist rebels have staged spectacular attacks in the past to press their independence drive, and threatened more attacks in the run-up to the election of a President to head the pro-Moscow regional government this Sunday.
But moderate Chechen rebels accused Russia’s special forces of spreading misinformation and denied any connection with the Islamist group, which called itself the Islambouli Brigade.
The Tu-154, bound for Sochi on the Black Sea, crashed near the southern city of Rostov-on-Don less than four minutes after a Tu-134 flying to Volgograd crashed near Tula, south of Moscow. Both flew from Moscow’s Domodedovo airport.
“During the examination of the wreckage of the Tu-154 plane traces of explosives were found,” said a spokeswoman for the FSB, entrusted by President Vladimir Putin with the probe.
She said the explosive was of a type used in some previous attacks blamed on Chechen separatists, including apartment block bombings in Moscow and Volgodonsk in 1999 that killed over 200 — attacks that Chechen rebels accused Moscow of staging.
The head of the investigating commission said last night that the crew had activated a distress signal shortly before crashing, but failed to provide voice confirmation.
Putin, now in his second term, has been plagued by Chechen rebel attacks including a major raid in the regional capital Grozny last weekend.
Responsible for sending Russian troops back to the region in 1999, he saw early military successes turn into attritional guerrilla warfare with the separatists.
But rebel attacks appear to have done little to dent his popularity in the rest of Russia. Putin argues that his hardline approach is part of an international war on terror.
The Arabic statement from the Islambouli Brigade said five militants had hijacked each plane, according to the website. The statement, whose authenticity could not be verified, threatened more attacks.
“Russia’s slaughtering of Muslims is still continuing and will not end except with a bloody war,” it said.
An FSB spokesperson declined to comment on the statement. Khaled Islambouli was the Egyptian army officer who assassinated Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981.
He was a member of the Jihad group, part of which integrated into al Qaida in the 1990s under Ayman al-Zawahri, the top aide to Saudi-born al Qaida leader Osama bin Laden. Intelligence experts say al Qaida has been trying for some years to offer support to Chechen militants and harness them to its cause.
News agencies said no relatives had come forward to claim the remains of one passenger, a 27-year-old woman who gave a Chechen surname when buying her ticket.
A source at the investigating commission told Itar-Tass news agency that the presence of at least two Chechen surnames among the passengers “could not fail to raise suspicion”.