MAGAS, Russia (Reuters) - Islamist insurgents from the North Caucasus were behind a suicide bomb attack that killed 35 people at Russia’s busiest airport, the head of the mainly Muslim province of Ingushetia said Thursday.
Ingush leader Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, who heads an impoverished region neighbouring Chechnya, is the most senior Russian official to blame insurgents publicly for Monday’s attack on Moscow’s Domodedovo airport.
“These leaders of the North Caucasus underground are responsible, like Doku Umarov,” Yevkurov told reporters in Ingushetia’s capital, Magas, referring to a Chechen rebel chief who calls himself emir of the “Caucasus Emirate.”
“The Caucasus Emirate did it, I am sure they did it,” he told journalist in his oak-lined and heavily-guarded palace.
“International airports, trains, crowds... It doesn’t matter what you protect: It is like putting on a gel against mosquitoes. You will always miss a spot and they will find it.”
No group has claimed responsibility for the attack that killed at least eight foreigners. It bore the hallmarks of Caucasus insurgents and Russian media said security forces were hunting for an ethnic Russian suspect from an Islamist group.
Russia’s leaders are struggling to contain a growing Islamist insurgency in the North Caucasus, a strip of impoverished, mainly Muslim provinces along predominantly Orthodox Christian Russia’s southern border.
Local leaders say a mix of clan feuds, poverty, Islamism and heavy-handed tactics by law enforcement agencies has driven youths into the ranks of rebels who want to create a Sharia-based pan-Caucasus state separate from Russia.
A leading daily, citing unnamed security sources, said the wanted man was named Razdobudko and was believed to be a member of the Nogai Jamaat, an insurgent group based in Dagestan, a region at the heart of the Islamist insurgency fuelled by two post-Soviet separatist wars in neighbouring Chechnya.
The Kommersant daily said the man may have organised the attack or even been the suicide bomber himself. A mug shot photograph of him on the Internet shows a young man with short cropped hair and a beard, staring defiantly at the camera.
He was one of about 10 people wanted in connection with the attack, the state-run RIA news agency cited an unidentified law enforcement official as saying.
Investigators “are certain the trail of the crime leads to the North Caucasus. The suicide attacker who detonated the bomb in the airport was a native of that region,” the official was quoted as saying.
Russia’s anti-terror committee said separately that the second rebel in command in Dagestan and his wife had been killed during a security operation in the region.
President Dmitry Medvedev Thursday ordered authorities to beef up security measures on transport, visiting a metro station on a central line targeted by female suicide bombers from Dagestan in a twin attack in March that killed 40 people.
The Nogai Jamaat, a group experts say operates under the umbrella of the “Caucasus Emirate,” was reported to be behind a foiled New Year’s Eve plot in Moscow when a bomb detonated prematurely killing a would-be female suicide bomber.
The Nogai Jamaat is a remnant of a guerrilla group created during the first Chechen war to back separatist militants, including the rebel chief Shamil Basayev, who claimed responsibility for the 2004 Beslan school hostage siege that killed over 330 people, most of them children.
Umarov, who rose to the head of the Chechen guerrilla movement in June 2006 after Basayev was killed by Russian security forces, now leads a rebellion that has increasingly morphed from a separatist to a radical Islamic movement.
In October 2007, Umarov styled himself as head of the Caucasus Emirate, uniting rag-tag rebel groups in several southern Russian regions in a drive to establish Sharia, or Islamic law, across the Caucasus mountains.
Additional reporting by Tom Grove, Guy Falconbridge and Alissa de Carbonnel; Writing by Alissa de Carbonnel; Editing by Maria Golovnina