Powerful Bus Blast Kills 8 in Tolyatti

ReutersEmergency workers treating a victim near the blown-out wreckage of the bus on Wednesday. Investigators suspect terrorists were behind the explosion.
TOLYATTI, Samara Region -- A powerful explosion ripped through a passenger bus Wednesday in the car-manufacturing city of Tolyatti, killing eight and injuring at least 54.

Investigators are treating the blast, which struck during morning rush hour at a busy intersection, as an act of terrorism.

Alexander Bastrykin, head of the Investigative Committee, a semiautonomous body under the auspices of the Prosecutor General's Office, said the blast could have been ordered by militants based in the North Caucasus, Interfax reported.

The "Caucasian trail ... is being investigated, among others," Bastrykin told Interfax.

Investigators are also considering a criminal conflict or accidental detonation as possibilities, said Yury Rozhin, head of the Federal Security Service's Samara region branch.

The bus was carrying dozens of students when the blast occurred, at about 8:10 a.m., said Irina Doroshenko, a spokeswoman for the Samara region branch of the Investigative Committee, which is directing the investigation.

Doroshenko said the possibility that a suicide bomber was responsible was also being explored.

"We can't rule anything out," she said. "It's too early."

The youngest victim in the blast, which had a force estimated at 2 kilograms of TNT, was 7 years old, while the oldest was 78, said Olga Yevtushevskaya, a spokeswoman for the Tolyatti City Hall's health department. She said most were aged from 17 to 21.

"Most victims have a combination of burns, broken limbs and concussions," Yevtushevskaya said, adding that one student was hospitalized with third

degree burns to the face. None of those injured was in critical condition, she added.

Witnesses said two suspicious-looking young men of Slavic appearance exited the bus moments before the explosion. Media reports said the bomb had no casing, similar to devices used in blasts in Voronezh in 2004. Those attacks were carried out by Slavic members of North Caucasus-based terrorist groups.

Darya Svoyekoshinova, a 19-year-old student at the nearby Tolyatti State Service University, had just parked her car about 100 meters away when she heard the blast.

"I saw a bus near a restaurant and something wasn't right," Svoyekoshinova said. "We approached and recognized two girls from the university lying on the ground."

Alexei Bannov, 13, whose school is near the intersection where the blast occurred, said he and his friends heard a loud explosion and went to investigate after their first class had ended.

"There was glass everywhere. Parts of human hands were scattered," Bannov said. "There were police everywhere and three ambulances."

The name of just one victim, Olga Kovalenko, 32, had been reported late Wednesday. A document obtained by The Moscow Times sent by the health department to Tolyatti State University lists 21 students and one lecturer -- Margarita Druzhinina -- who were taken to city hospitals after the blast.

"We are in a panic, in shock," said Anna Chersina, a spokeswoman for the university. "Parents who can't get through to their children are calling us in tears."

It was a similar story at the nearby Tatishchev University, where lecturers called the parents of absent students to track them down.

A university spokeswoman, who gave only her first name, Valentina, said two students had been on the bus and were treated on the scene for minor injuries.

A woman who answered the phone at the trauma unit of City Hospital No. 1 -- where several of the victims were taken -- refused to connect a reporter with the victims. Calls to City Hospital No. 2 went unanswered.

Grim photographs of the gutted bus that appeared on web sites throughout the day showed mangled bodies strewn around it and body parts lying on the street.

Most of the windows were shattered and the roof in the rear section --where witnesses said the explosion occurred -- was partially torn away.

Television footage showed several ambulances surrounding the bus and paramedics treating a handful of passengers for minor injuries.

Yevgeny Leontyev, a local journalist, arrived at the scene about half an hour after the explosion.

"The ticket inspector told me she saw two young people -- that is, people under 30 -- acting suspiciously," Leontyev said.

The two were of Slavic appearance and had been standing in the section of the bus between the middle and back doors, Leontyev said.

"They got off the bus, which traveled another 30 meters before stopping at a red light" when the explosion occurred, he said.

A number of those who had been on the bus said an explosive device was probably left on the floor above the rear, right-hand wheel, he said.

Viktor Ilyukhin, a Communist deputy and member of the State Duma security committee, said his sources in the law enforcement agencies had told him that the explosion was a planned suicide bombing, akin to similar attacks that have occurred in Dagestan.

"These terrorists want to demonstrate that although the authorities say they have power in the regions, this is not the case," Ilyukhin said. "This is a deliberate attempt to destabilize the political situation before the [Duma] elections [on Dec. 2]."

The flood of calls from parents to educational institutions and false rumors that the city had been hit by two other blasts were symptoms of the panic that ensued in a place more accustomed to gangland violence than terrorist attacks.

The Investigative Committee's Doroshenko would not comment on the reports that the bomb had no casing.

Andrei Soldatov, the editor of the Agentura.ru security web site, said bombs of this type were most often used to damage structures, rather than against human targets.

"That is why I would hesitate to jump to the conclusion that this was a bomb with no casing," Soldatov said.

It was unclear whether there were projectiles within the bomb, as shrapnel injuries could just as easily have been caused by blown-off pieces of metal from the bus, Soldatov said.

Bombs of this type were employed in a series of bus stop explosions in Voronezh in 2004 that killed one person and injured nine others. In May 2005, FSB officers arrested Maxim Panarin, an ethnic Slav and convert to Wahhabi Islam, who allegedly confessed to committing the attacks on the orders of Chechen warlords.

Tolyatti is home to the car giant AvtoVAZ. Pyotr Zolotaryov, the chief of its labor union, said no employees had been victims of or witnesses to the blast.

President Vladimir Putin called on Vladimir Artyakov, the region's governor, to take immediate action, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

"The president wants to make sure all necessary steps are taken to help, first and foremost, the families of those who died and those who were injured," Peskov said.

Staff Writer David Nowak contributed to this report from Moscow.