Moscow airport blast: Suicide bomb kills 35

By Will Englund and Kathy Lally
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, January 25, 2011; 12:34 AM

MOSCOW - The suicide bombing Monday at Domodedovo Airport marked one of the most damaging attacks here in years, striking at a crucial link between Russia and the rest of the world.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack, which killed 35 people and injured 86, 40 of them critically. Russian authorities said they were investigating leads late Monday.

Russia has experienced nearly 15 years of terrorist acts, virtually all of them attributed to Chechens or other Islamic separatists from the North Caucasus, where a low-level civil war continues to smolder. The violence has included bombings of buildings, trains and domestic flights, as well as mass hostage takings in a hospital, a school and a theater.

But Monday's attack, which brought devastation to the bustling international terminal of the country's busiest airport, achieved a new level of visibility. The bomber attacked at the airport's most vulnerable point, the unsecured reception area outside of customs. Authorities here and elsewhere immediately promised new measures to tighten security at airports worldwide.

Domodedovo handles 600 flights a day from all points of the globe, including major U.S. airports such as Dulles. It is a more potent symbol than the Moscow subway system, bombed in March in an attack that killed 40, or the Moscow-St. Petersburg rail line, disrupted by a bombing 14 months ago that killed 27.

Authorities did not point to separatists from the North Caucasus as the likely culprits, as they often do. It is probable, though, that official suspicion will fall on the Islamist separatists whom Russia has been fighting in Chechnya and neighboring regions for more than a decade. Moscow fought two wars against the Chechens, with huge casualties.

Officials said the bombing was a terrorist attack carried out by a male bomber using about 15 pounds of explosives. They declared a "high terror alert" at Moscow's two other major airports and the subway system.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev went on national TV Monday evening and criticized the lapses that had allowed the bombing to take place. "What happened shows that not all laws that must be effective are being correctly applied at various places. This has to be sorted out," he said. "A special regime must be started at all airports."

Medvedev offered condolences to the families of those killed, ordered that the wounded be given first-rate medical care and promised to launch a full investigation. He said he was postponing his trip to the Davos World Economic Forum in Switzerland, where he had been scheduled to appear Tuesday.

A familiar routine

After years of attacks in Moscow, there is a routine to what follows after an explosion, and Monday was no exception.

A blow, confusion, scrambling ambulances, official promises of justice, more confusion and, a few hours later, families at hospitals - trying in frustration to find out whether their loved ones were inside.

Late into the evening, the floor at the airport was littered with bodies and body parts.

Many of the flights arriving at Domodedovo on Monday happened to be delayed, which may have saved some lives. Witnesses said the reception area where the explosion took place was less crowded than it might have been. A taxi driver who survived said he thought most of the victims were fellow drivers, many holding signs to catch the attention of arriving passengers. Others in the crowd may have been Tajiks, waiting to greet friends and relatives who were on an overdue flight from Dushanbe.

At 3:52 p.m., according to the Russian Air Transport Agency, a flight from Dusseldorf, Germany, more than an hour late, set down at Domodedovo. Eleven minutes later, a flight from Vienna landed, closely followed by one from Odessa, Ukraine's Black Sea port. The passengers from those flights were most likely in customs or had just passed through when the bomber struck, at 4:37 p.m.

'There is an explosion!'

Nikolai Khramov of Welcome Taxi in Moscow had dispatched Andrei Abrosimov, a relatively new driver, to Domodedovo to pick up a passenger arriving from Germany on a Lufthansa flight.

At 4:43 p.m., Khramov heard Abrosimov's voice, shouting on the radio: "There is an explosion! I'm covered in blood!"

It was six minutes after the blast. The first news report would not come until 5 p.m., with alerts that several people had been injured in an explosion at the airport.

"He was crying on the radio. He said he was hurt and could not pick up the passenger," Khramov said.

Khramov kept trying to call Abrosimov, reaching him at 5:34 p.m. "He said he was lying on the floor in the medical center at the airport. 'All the people are running and crying. No one has gotten to me.' "

Later, Khramov found out that Abrosimov had been taken to a hospital in Moscow with a broken arm and other injuries. He was in critical condition.

Others waiting at the airport described heavy smoke, bodies arrayed throughout the hall and blood everywhere.

"I saw a lot of smoke, a lot of police and a lot of firemen," Alexei Nefedov told Russian television. He said he was also struck by the sight of passengers from later flights continuing to exit the customs hall with their luggage, only to stumble onto a scene of devastation.

Domodedovo continued to operate, although most flights were diverted to one of Moscow's other airports or returned to their starting point.

The explosion brought expressions of solidarity from around the world.

"We stand with the victims of these crimes, and we will continue to work with the international community to combat violent extremism that threatens peace-loving people everywhere," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in a statement. "The United States remains ready to support the Russian government as it seeks to bring these perpetrators to justice."

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