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21 February 2024

Moscow blames lax security for airport horror

Passengers walk by the flowers laid in honour of January 24 blast at Domodedovo airport outside Moscow. (AFP)


President Dmitry Medvedev on Tuesday lashed out at "anarchic" security lapses that allowed a suicide bomber to slaughter 35 at Russia's main airport as investigators probed a link to the restive Caucasus.

Unofficial sources indicated the bomber was a woman dispatched by militants from the overwhelmingly Muslim North Caucasus to wreak havoc. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, warned the culprits faced inevitable retribution.

The attack Monday afternoon at Moscow's Domodedovo airport -- which left body fragments strewn over the arrivals hall -- again dented confidence in Russian security as it gears up to host the Winter Olympics and World Cup.

"Terrorism remains the main security threat to our state -- the main threat to Russia and all of our cities," Medvedev told a meeting of the security services after observing a moment of silence where he choked back tears.

In comments broadcast on national television, Medvedev demanded answers from Domodedovo airport over how it let the bomber wander into arrivals and set off a bomb just as passengers from several international flights were arriving.

"The evidence from the scene of the crime tells us that pure anarchy reigned," said Medvedev. "People were allowed to walk in from anywhere. The entrance restrictions were partial at best," he said.

He added that Russia would have to move to a system of "comprehensive checks" being practiced at Israeli and US airports.

"This is our only solution," said Medvedev. "The level of the terror threat in Russia is higher than it is in the United States."

The Russian investigative committee launched a criminal probe into security failures at the airport, saying it would investigate whether security officials and airport executives had complied with rules to keep the airport safe.

The criminal code stipulates jail sentences of up to seven years for those found guilty of such violations, it noted in a statement.

But a Domodedovo spokeswoman said that all the security procedures had been followed correctly and the airport was not to blame. "We do not feel that we should be held accountable," Yelena Galanova told Interfax.

Putin -- who has kept a relatively low profile since the blast issued a characteristically tough warning to the militants that the attack would be avenged.

"I have no doubt that the crime will be uncovered and that retribution is inevitable," the prime minister told a government meeting.

Sources told the state-run RIA Novosti news agency that the attack bore all the hallmarks of militants from the overwhelmingly Muslim Caucasus region who have fought a deadly insurgency with the Kremlin over the last years.

"This act of terror followed the classic scheme used by terrorists who come from the North Caucasus," said the security official.

The bomber may have been a woman, the agency said. "The explosion occurred the moment the presumed female suicide bomber opened her bag," RIA Novosti quoted an unnamed security official as saying.

"The terrorist was accompanied by a man. He was standing beside her and (the blast) tore off his head."

The Lifenews.ru website published a grainy photograph of what it said was the severed head of a suspected male "terrorist" after the blast, adding the image had been sent to experts in the Caucasus for further examination.

Initial reports said the blast had the force of between five and seven kilogrammes (11-15.4 pounds) of TNT and witnesses said the device was filled with nuts and bolts.

The attack struck one of Russia's most important links with the outside world. The airport hosts a range of international carriers, including British Airways, Lufthansa and Emirates.

Several foreigners were among the dead, including at least one Briton and prominent young Ukrainian playwright Anna Mashutina.

As it eyes greater international exposure, Russia is due to host the Winter Olympics in 2014 and the World Cup in 2018 but Medvedev promised that security would be boosted.

Russia's capital has been repeatedly rocked by attacks in recent years blamed on militants from the Northern Caucasus and sometimes carried out by Muslim female bombers known as the "Black Widows".

Double bombings carried out by two female suicide bombers on the Moscow metro last March killed 40.