MOSCOW – Russian investigators probing the deadly bombing at Moscow's largest airport were focusing on up to 10 people from the volatile Caucasus region as possible suspects, a state news agency reported Thursday.
Suspicions initially fell on Chechen rebels for being behind Monday's blast at Domodedovo Airport that killed 35 people and wounded 180. Chechen rebels have claimed responsibility for a number of deadly attacks over the years, including ones against the Moscow subway and at the same airport.
No one has yet claimed responsibility for the latest attack and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, perhaps sensitive about his failure to contain Chechnya's Islamist rebellion, insisted Wednesday there was no initial indication of a Chechen connection. But Chechen rebels have inspired Islamist insurgent activity elsewhere in the Caucasus and the state RIA Novosti agency said up to 10 people from there are being viewed as possible suspects.
Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, the regional president of the province of Ingushetia west of Chechnya, said Thursday that Chechen rebel leader Doku Umarov or some other leaders of the Islamist insurgency likely were behind the airport bombing, the ITAR-Tass news agency reported. Yevkurov himself was badly wounded by a suicide bombing of his convoy in June 2009.
The Kommersant newspaper reported that police attention is focusing on an insurgent group called the Nogai Brigade, which reportedly observes the strict Wahhabi form of Islam. The group emerged in the early part of the last decade in the Stavropol region and sided with Chechen separatist groups.
Kommersant, citing a source close to the bombing probe, said an ethnic Russian member of the group was of particular interest to investigators. The man is believed to be connected to a woman arrested in January for allegedly planning a suicide bombing in Moscow.
That arrest followed a New Year's Eve explosion on the outskirts of Moscow that killed one woman. The newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets said the victim was believed to be preparing a bomb to attack a holiday gathering, but it was inadvertently triggered early when the cell-phone provider sent a text message with a holiday greeting.
Authorities have been tightlipped about the Moscow airport bombing investigation. No consistent account of what happened has emerged, with conflicting reports about whether it was a male or female suicide bomber, or a couple, or a bomb meant to be remotely detonated but which exploded prematurely.
The dearth of official information has prompted discontent among many Russians.
"The authorities create grounds for the increase in conspiracy theorists," prominent opposition Ilya Yashin wrote in his blog. "Their opaque nature and unwillingness to answer all the questions lead to a rise in distrust and anger among the general public."
The website Kavkaz Center, where Chechen insurgents have previously issued claims of responsibility, appeared irritated that Putin dismissed Chechen involvement, suggesting that Russian authorities simply want to ignore that insurgents still exist despite two full-scale wars since 1994.
In recent years, the province of Dagestan east of Chechnya has seen the most frequent separatist-connected bloodshed. On Thursday, an unidentified gunman shot dead a district police chief and his deputy in the Babayurt region of Dagestan near Chechnya, regional police spokesman Vyacheslav Gasanov said. The assailant was killed in a subsequent skirmish with police, he said.
A separate clash in the town of Khasavyurt left two suspected militants dead, according to security officials.
More high-ranking Russian transport officials were fired in the wake of the bombing Thursday, including the head of air transport security for the western Russia region that includes Moscow. President Dmitry Medvedev fired a top transport police official Wednesday and several lower-ranking transport police were dismissed.
Medvedev said after the blast that Domodedovo's security was in a "state of anarchy."
The attack stained Russia's image at a vulnerable time, coming just before Medvedev's appearance at the Davos World Economic Forum to try to woo international investment. It also called into question Russia's ability to safely host major international events like the 2014 Winter Olympics and the 2018 World Cup.
But the president remained defiant.
"Those who committed this heinous act ... expected that the terrorist act would bring Russia to its knees ... but they miscalculated," Medvedev said in Davos. "(It) only strengthens our resolve to find an effective protection against international terror."
David Nowak in Moscow, and Arsen Mollayev in Makhachkala, Russia, contributed to this report.