ST PETERSBURG (Reuters) - The main suspect in a suicide bombing on the St Petersburg metro that killed 14 people had rented an apartment in the city a month before the blast, neighbours and a building maintenance worker told Reuters on Wednesday.
A day after Monday’s attack, security officials raided the apartment and ordered other residents to leave -- a precaution often undertaken when police believe there may be explosives or bomb-making equipment inside.
A witness who was present during the search, and who did not want to be identified, told Reuters she saw belongings packed into black bags and cardboard boxes, and household containers with an unidentified powder inside.
The Investigative Committee, the state body leading the investigation, said footage from security cameras near the same building showed the suspect, Akbarzhon Jalilov, leaving home carrying a bag and a rucksack. It did not specify if that was on the day of the attack.
Jalilov was born in 1995 in Kyrgyzstan, a mainly Muslim ex-Soviet republic in central Asia, and held a Russian passport.
If it is proven that he was motivated by militant Islamist ideology, that will test Russian President Vladimir Putin’s policy of military intervention in Syria.
Some Russians may decide their country’s intervention is making them a target for reprisal attacks by Islamists instead of making them safer as Putin had told them would happen.
Jalilov moving into the rented apartment, in a Soviet-built nine-storey building in north-eastern St Petersburg, coincided with his return from a visit to his home city of Osh in southern Kyrgyzstan.
Two Kyrgyz government sources told Reuters that Jalilov made the trip in February, leaving in early March on a flight to Moscow.
Osh is part of the Fergana Valley, a fertile strip of land that straddles Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan and is mainly populated by ethnic Uzbeks. It has a tradition of Islamist radicalism and hundreds of people have set out from the area to join Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.
Jalilov had previously lived in St Petersburg for several years. It was not clear where he had been living before his trip back to Osh, or why he moved to a new apartment.
The apartment Jalilov rented in St Petersburg is about 20 km from the site of the explosion, in the centre of the city.
Neighbours at the building said that Jalilov had first moved into apartment 109 around a month ago. They said the young man they had seen around the building matched pictures of Jalilov released to Russian media since the bombing.
“The apartment was always silent,” said a resident of the same staircase, who gave her name as Margarita. “When the owner let (the apartment) I asked her and she said he was a decent guy and that I should call her if he makes noise.”
“But I never heard ... any music playing. Maybe he turned on the TV once.”
She said on one occasion about five people who appeared ethnically Russian had visited him, but there seemed nothing remarkable about that. A second resident also said Jalilov had been a tenant in the building.
Security service officers arrived at the address on Tuesday, and ordered residents to vacate the building.
The building maintenance worker, who asked not to be identified, said: “They forced open the apartment. There were various powders in jars. I could see that they had packed up his things. Lots in black bags, and two boxes.”
The Investigative Committee confirmed the search but a spokeswoman declined to give details about what they found.
Jalilov’s parents, who say they had not seen their son for a while, were due to fly into St Petersburg on Wednesday and a Reuters witness at Pulkovo airport reported heavy security.
A middle-aged man and woman were escorted away after the flight arrived, the Reuters reporter said. Authorities refused to confirm that the couple were Jalilov’s parents but the woman, in response to a Russian TV reporter’s question, said she did not believe her son was the bomber.
In the several years Jalilov spent living in Russia, he blended into the millions of migrants from central Asia, and led an outwardly secular lifestyle. His profile on VKontakte, the Russian equivalent of Facebook, showed he was interested in pop music, fast cars, and boxer Mike Tyson.
His aunt, Surayo Jalilova, told Reuters in Osh: “We are speechless, we were all shocked, we never thought he could do something like this. He was the most obedient kid in the family, did well at school.”
Fatima Kadyrakhunova, who was his class teacher for four years at School no. 26 in Osh, said he was quiet and reserved, but did not excel at his studies.
Six people of central Asian origin have been held on suspicion of recruiting for radical Islamist groups, but there is no proof linking the detainees to the metro bombing, Russian investigators said.
Meanwhile authorities have beefed up security across major cities, with sniffer dogs and bag checks at several metro stations in Moscow.
Putin touched on the attack at a previously scheduled meeting in Moscow with security service chiefs from ex-Soviet countries.
“We see that, unfortunately, the situation is not getting better and the clearest confirmation of that is the recent tragic incident in St Petersburg,” Putin said.
“People died as a result of a terrorist act, many were hurt,” he said.
Additional reporting by Maria Tsvetkova and Svetlana Reiter in MOSCOW, Hulkar Isamova in OSH, Kyrgyzstan, and Olzhas Auyezov in ALMATY; Writing by Sujata Rao and Christian Lowe; Editing by Giles Elgood