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Subway blast generates fear in Moscow


MOSCOW - If there is one experience that most Muscovites share, it is riding on its clattering, steamy and tightly packed subway cars to work. And if there is one fear that most will have Monday, it is of another terror attack on the morning commute.

An explosion ripped through one of the metro system's trains yesterday morning, killing at least 39 people, injuring more than 122 and spreading fear through a city that echoed with the scream of sirens.

The blast, which carried the explosive force of almost 4 1/2 pounds of dynamite, struck at 8:32 a.m., the peak of rush hour in the world's busiest subway system. Without noting evidence, authorities quickly blamed Chechen separatists, who have been accused of conducting a sporadic campaign of suicide bombings in the Russian capital since July. They said a bomb apparently had been hidden in a backpack or briefcase left on the floor of the car.

No one claimed responsibility, and a spokesman for Chechnya's rebel government-in-hiding denied responsibility.

There have been other, deadlier bombings here in recent years. But yesterday's may have generated as much anxiety among the residents of Russia's capital as the 1999 explosions in apartment buildings in Moscow and Volgodonsk. Those blasts took 249 lives.

Nine million people each day dart, push and shove their way onto subway trains that swoop into stations just fast enough, it seems, to keep the people on the platforms from spilling onto the tracks.

Yesterday's explosion ripped apart the packed second car of an eight-car train. It detonated shortly after the train left a southeast Moscow station headed northwest under the Moscow River, to the Paveletskaya station and on toward Red Square. The explosion may also have caught a team of workers laboring in the tunnel as the train passed.

The wrecked car was described by a witness as "a barrel split into pieces." Bits of metal studded the walls and ceiling of the tunnel, witnesses said, and body parts were strewn across the tracks. A fire and thick black smoke drove hundreds of people waiting on platforms out of the tunnel.

Vera Timofeyeva, 42, watched the injured stream out of the subway from her kiosk near the entrance to the Paveletskaya station. The metro stop occupies the first floor of an old five-story, chrome-yellow office building across the street from gleaming new office towers.

A young woman blackened with soot and ash staggered out of a subway, across the icy sidewalk and up to Timofeyeva's kiosk. She pointed to a bottle of water. "She didn't say anything," Timofeyeva said. "She was in a state of shock."

Authorities said they were searching for a dark-featured man in a leather cap who reportedly approached an Avtozavodskaya station worker moments after the train left and just before the explosion. "You'll have an occasion to celebrate," he said, according to the ITAR-TASS news agency. Then he used an obscenity.

The state-controlled ITAR-TASS said the man "has an unmistakable North Caucasian appearance." Chechnya is a predominantly Islamic region of the North Caucasus where separatists have fought for two centuries against domination by Orthodox Russia.

'Black widows'

In addition, the Interfax news service quoted police sources as saying the attack could have been the work of the so-called "black widows," Chechen women who have participated in several attempted suicide bombings in Russia. They are known as black widows because they wear black and some have husbands or brothers killed by Russian troops in the 4 1/2 year-old war with Chechen separatists.

Women were among the Chechens who seized a Moscow theater in October 2002, taking about 700 hostages. Russian officials pumped narcotic gas into the theater and anti-terror troops stormed it. At least 129 of the hostages died, all but two from the effects of the gas. All 41 of the Chechen hostage-takers were killed, many executed while unconscious.

On Dec. 9, a Chechen woman wearing a belt packed with explosives blew herself up in front of the National Hotel across the street from the Kremlin complex. Six people died.

Yesterday, Russian President Vladimir V. Putin reiterated his determination to pursue the war against Chechnya.

"Russia is not negotiating with terrorists," he told television viewers. "Russia is eliminating them."

Analysts predicted the bombing would strengthen the hand of the popular leader, who already seemed certain of re-election to a second term March 14.

But Irina Khakamada, a liberal democrat waging a seemingly doomed effort to upset Putin in the elections, said on station Ekho Moskvy that the bombing proves that the Kremlin's efforts to pacify Chechnya aren't working.

There were no reports of Americans or other foreigners among the casualties. U.S. Ambassador Alexander Vershbow, in a statement, expressed his condolences and condemned what he called "this cowardly attack. No political cause can justify terrorist attacks that kill and maim innocent civilians."

The Moscow metro is by far the world's busiest, carrying nearly three times the number who ride New York's subways. It is also the world's deepest, plunging up to 30 stories underground. Subway officials said the blast occurred at one of the system's deepest points.

It has been bombed before - most recently, in February 2001 - when a bomb planted under a bench at Belorusskaya station injured several people.

'There was no panic'

Yesterday, the train engineer, his tie askew but otherwise appearing unhurt, told Russian television that the explosion - one car back - blew the window out in front of him. Applying the brakes, he radioed dispatchers to cut power to the tunnel so the train could be evacuated. "There was no panic," he asserted, though other witnesses disagreed.

A passenger, Anton Belikov, told the network that survivors helped at least two pregnant women climb out of the wreckage. As the train started to burn, the tunnel filled with smoke, he said. To keep from choking, some passengers squatted patiently and waited for emergency workers to find them. Others slouched and trotted to safety.

As smoke filled the marble-clad subway stations near the scene, fleeing passengers clambered through snaking passages. Russian television showed the injured lying on gurneys as they rode steeply raked escalators that take several minutes to reach the surface. Rescue workers in soot-smeared gear and battered breathing apparatus trudged through the darkness, searching through the carnage for the dead and injured. Scores of people suffered from smoke inhalation.

A woman in a frayed green coat near Paveletskaya station pleaded with passers-by in an underground passageway for news of her son. She said he had taken the metro to work, but never showed up. "I hope that he was not there," she said, on the point of tears.

Convoys of ambulances screamed through the sleet along the capital's broad boulevards, jammed as usual with morning traffic. More than 20 ambulances were lined up outside the Paveletskaya station waiting for casualties two hours after the explosion. Medevac helicopters - a rare sight here - were also used to evacuate some of the critically injured.

Police and firefighters were joined by plainclothes Federal Security Service agents, as well as rescue workers with Russia's Emergency Situations Ministry. With a major metro line closed down, thousands of commuters streamed out of nearby stations and stoically wedged their way onto buses and trolleys.

At the Sklifosovsky Research Institute of Emergency Medicine, an ambulance delivered one of the injured, a dazed-looking man, about 40 years old, who walked into the building with the help of paramedics. He glanced blankly around him, as if he didn't understand where he was. "He is in shock, don't talk to him," a paramedic warned.

A young woman named Aloyna said her sister, in her late teens, was being treated at the institute for smoke inhalation. "We don't know what happened to her," she said. The girls' mother stood silently by, looking pale and grim.

Yelena Ilingina of The Sun's Moscow Bureau contributed to this article.

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