Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 56

The death toll in the March 19 bombing of a market in Vladikavkaz, the capital of North Ossetia, was lowered over the weekend from sixty-two to an official fifty-one. This figure may change yet again. More than 100 people were injured, some of them seriously. Investigators are certain that the incident was a politically motivated terrorist act. Vladimir Putin, director of the Federation Security Service, and Sergei Stepashin, Russia’s interior minister, flew to Vladikavkaz following the bombing (Russian agencies, March 19).

The incident was the second largest terrorist attack in Russia since the beginning of perestroika, following the November 1996 bombing in the Dagestani city of Kaspisk, which killed sixty-four people. Investigators have not yet concluded who might have been responsible. At first glance, the most likely catalyst is the Ossetian-Ingush conflict, which took hundreds of lives back in 1992 and has not dissipated. Earlier this month, tensions rose in the Prigorod region separating the two republics, and there were several armed confrontations between Ingush and Ossetians. The conflict, however, has never included such random acts of terror as the Vladikavkaz bombing (Kommersant daily, March 20). In any case, some observers fear that this bombing could spark a renewed Ossetian-Ingush conflict.

A more likely version involves the trouble in neighboring Chechnya. Following the arrest of two Chechen women in connection with the 1997 bombing of the Pyatigorsk railway station, rebel field commander Salman Raduev threatened to carry out terrorist acts on Russian territory if they were not freed. The two women were recently sentenced to long prison sentences. It is also possible that the terrorist bombing was connected with the abduction of Interior Ministry General Gennady Shpigun. Stepashin indirectly confirmed that he suspects a Chechen connection to the bombing, announcing that he had consulted with the heads of Chechnya’s security services about Chechen citizens who may have been connected to the blast (Kommersant daily, March 20; NTV, March 21). Russian authorities have distributed composite drawings of a man and a woman who are believed to have left a package in the Vladikavkaz market just prior to the explosion.

While the Chechen connection is at the top of the list, one newspaper reported today that Russia’s special services believe that “outside forces” may have been behind the bombing, with the goal of destabilizing the North Caucasus. The paper said its sources mentioned Saudi-born terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden (Segodnya, March 22).

In any case, the Russian authorities have drastically tightened security along the Chechen-Russian border, in what amounts to a de facto blockade. Moscow also continues to threaten sanctions against Chechnya.