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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Bomb in Vladikavkaz Kills More Than 60

A powerful bomb blast tore through the central outdoor market Friday in Vladikavkaz in southern Russia, killing at least 62 people and injuring about 100, officials said.

The death toll was likely to rise, with about half of those hospitalized after the explosion in critical condition, officials said.

The explosion occurred a few minutes before noon, when the market was crowded with people buying groceries for the weekend. Officials said whoever set the bomb, which was left in a car parked near the market entrance, had apparently been aiming for maximum casualties.

Vladikavkaz is the capital of the republic of North Ossetia in Russia's unstable North Caucasus region. But the motive for the bombing wasn't immediately clear.

President Boris Yeltsin went on televison to promise a "merciless battle" against the bombers and to express condolences to the families of the victims.

"I apologize to their near and dear ones," said Yeltsin, who spoke slowly and slurred some of his words. "I apologize because I am responsible for everything."

The bombers used either a timer or a remote control, police and other officials said. They estimated the bomb as the equivalent of 10 kilograms of TNT.

Some 25 people died instantly, officials said, with many of the injured suffering shrapnel wounds to their legs, doctors said. "It exploded and I was sent flying," said a middle-aged male victim taken to Vladikavkaz Central Hospital, Reuters reported.

ORT television showed dismembered bodies lying on market carts that had been used to carry sacks of vegetables just minutes before. The blast destroyed the 15-meter-high wall of the marketplace's central pavilion, near where the car with the explosives was parked, and blew out windows in buildings surrounding the market.

"I was there just after the blast," said Irina Tabulova, officer of the Vladikavkaz department of the Emergency Situations Ministry. "It was not for a sane person to watch. About 20 people were torn into small pieces. I saw heads, hands and legs separated from the bodies. I can't talk about it."

People crying and shaking with grief searched through the debris for survivors or helped police and rescue workers ferry the injured to the hospital in ambulances and private cars.

Late Friday, Yeltsin's representative in North Ossetia and neighboring Ingushetia said that a "diversionary group'' had claimed responsibility for the blast in a long-distance phone call to Vladikavkaz, ITAR-Tass reported.

Vladimir Kalamanov said the group had not identified itself, but that its message suggested that the motive behind the blast was "religious fanaticism.'' The majority religion in Northern Ossetia is Orthodox Christianity, and several of its neighbors are predominantly Muslim.

Alexander Dzasokhov, the republic's president, appeared at the site and "was devastated by the tragedy and look half dead," Tabulova said.

Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov sent Dzasokhov a telegram expressing his "deep sorrow", his spokeswoman said. Primakov pledged assistance for the victims and vowed to thoroughly investigate.

Yeltsin sent Interior Minister Sergei Stepashin and Vladimir Putin, head of the Federal Security Service, or FSB, to Vladikavkaz along with FSB investigators and explosives experts.

"This is not a terrorist act against some person," Stepashin said upon his arrival at the airport in Vladikavkaz. "This is a crime against people. Many years peace was formed in this region. People started to forget about the troubles and started to get used to the peaceful life. But unfortunately someone wants to force the situation all the time."

'We will do everything to find and neutralize the bandits who are responsible for this terrorist act."

The law-enforcement bodies have already they were seeking two men seen leaving the market shortly before the explosion..

.Political analysts searched for a connection between the blast and the complex ethnic politics of the region. Vladikavkaz is just 50 kilometers from the border with the breakaway republic of Chechnya, which fought a 1994-96 with the central authorities in Moscow and has since descended into lawlessness.

North Ossetia itself was the scene of a bloody 1992 clash between Ossetians and ethnic Ingush in the Prigorodny region.

The explosion took the day after a large demonstration by Ingush nationalists in Nazran, capital of the neighboring republic of Ingushetia. They demanded the return of a part of Prigorodny region to Ingushetia.

About 30,000 Ingush live in this region now. Many of them had to flee their homes in 1992 during a bloody conflict over the region. It was originally inhabited by Ingush, who were deported to Central Asia during World War II by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. After the war, Prigorodny was transferred to North Ossetia.

Just four days ago two houses inhabited by ethnic Ingush were dynamited in the village of Chermen in Prigorodny and earlier this month, gunmen fired on a convoy traveling in North Ossetia near the border with Georgia, killing a driver.

"But nothing could be compared with the mass massacre which happened today," said Andrei Sdravomyslov, head of the Center of the Sociological and International problems with the Russian Independent Institute of the Social and National Problems.

"The region is the second hot spot in Russia after Chechnya," said Sdravomyslov.

Sdravomyslov and other analysts speculated that the bombing might be the work of Ingush radicals, or by weapons traders seeking to profit from renewed conflict.

Alan Pliyev, director of the Center for Sociological and Humanitarian Research with the Vladikavkaz Management Institute, said that the blast would benefit "the weapons and drug dealers, shadow businesses in the region, who want to get rich quick on people's tragedies."

Markets are often controlled by criminal groups and a battle between organized crime factions remained another possible motive.