MOSCOW — A suicide bomber slammed a truck into a police station in Russia's troubled Caucasus region Monday, killing at least 20 people and wounding dozens in a fireball that scattered charred bodies and set the building on fire.
The attack in the Ingushetia region was the latest, and most dramatic, flare-up in the long-simmering conflict that pits radical Islamists and separatist fighters in neighboring Chechnya against the Russian government. Late last week, more than 20 people were killed in attacks on government workers, civilians and police in Chechnya and a third Russian republic, Dagestan.
Emergency workers were still picking through the rubble of Monday's attack and weren't certain of the number of dead and wounded. Russian news wires said that more than 120 people might have been injured in the attack.
"It's difficult to give an exact number of dead people," said Madina Khadzieva, a local Interior Ministry spokeswoman who was reached by phone in the city of Nazran, where the police station was bombed. "They think that they can find some bodies under the ruins of the building."
In June, a suicide bomber badly wounded the leader of Ingushetia, Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, by plowing a car packed with explosives into his motorcade.
"The situation has been unstable since the attempt on the president's life," Khadzieva said. "We have had mobile patrol units 24 hours a day, but as we see it's not enough to stabilize the situation."
The issue of stability in the northern Caucasus is especially troubling for the Russian government, which waged two brutal wars in Chechnya last decade and then at the beginning of this one. After a bargain was struck with a former rebel and then his son, Ramzan Kadyrov, in Chechnya, there was relative peace secured by a bloody campaign by local officials and state intelligence forces to hunt down rival factions.
However, the recent violence raises the prospect that Kremlin-installed proxies aren't able to keep control of the mix of insurgents, criminal gangs and warring religious sects.
The area is predominantly Muslim, and historically has been a center of rebellion since its conquest by Russia in the 19th century. The friction is internal and external, with clans slaughtering one another in blood feuds and various movements fighting for independence from Moscow.
Before the attempt on his life, Yevkurov had been trying to quell problems by using a more moderate approach than his predecessors had, hoping that a reduction in violence would undermine militants' recruitment campaigns.
Kaloi Akhilgov, a Yevkurov spokesman, blamed Monday's attack on extremists who've been squeezed on the Ingushetia-Chechnya border by a joint security forces offensive.
"All these explosions and attacks on people are connected with this operation," Akhilgov said.
He conceded that militants had staged a successful operation of their own Monday: "The building was severely destroyed."
After the attack, Chechnya leader Kadyrov's office issued a statement carried by Russian news wires: "We have a common enemy and a common goal of neutralizing it. Together with Ingush President Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, we realize the mission and will do our best to liquidate the remaining militants."
Last Monday, the head of a children's charity group and her husband were kidnapped in Chechnya and then found dead the next morning, stuffed in the trunk of their car. Last Wednesday, the Ingush construction minister was shot to death in his office.
The following two days got much bloodier: Among the attacks was a shooting at a police post Thursday in Dagestan, killing four police officers. A subsequent assault by the same gunmen mowed down seven women who were working at a nearby sauna.
Also on Thursday, a gunfight broke out between police and suspected militants in Chechnya that killed four officers. On Friday, two more police officers reportedly were killed in Dagestan.
The violence made headlines — more than 20 people killed in two days — but the bombing Monday eclipsed it.
(Djidjoeva is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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