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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Stepashin Warns of Wave of Terrorism




As reports swirled that the Kremlin was considering introducing a state of emergency in Russia, Interior Minister Sergei Stepashin warned Friday that the country may be facing a "criminal-terrorist challenge" from Chechnya.


Stepashin's warning came after a recent string of bombings across Russia, the most recent one Thursday in St. Petersburg.


Special OMON police dismantled a handmade bomb discovered in a parked car in St. Petersburg that contained 5 kilograms of TNT and was packed with nails, screws, empty gun shells and pieces of metal. It could have caused terrible damage and loss of life.


A small explosion equal to 10 grams of TNT went off in the back seat of the Zaporozhets, and when police came to investigate they said they found the much larger bomb in the cavity of the right front door. Police said they believed the first blast was intended to detonate the bomb.


Police have not identified the owner of the car, which was parked in a residential area in southwest St. Petersburg.


Other recent bombings have been deadly. More than 50 people died after a bomb went off last month at the busy central market in Vladikavkaz, the capital of North Ossetia in the Caucasus.


A bomb placed outside a Federal Security Service building in central Moscow last Sunday injured three people and blew out windows in nearby buildings.


Although no suspects have been named in any of these attacks, Russian politicians have shown little hesitance in pointing the figure at Chechnya. Stepashin has taken an even harder line toward the separatist republic since one of his generals, and a personal friend, was kidnapped last month.


There also is an eerie similarity to the situation during the heat of the presidential campaign in the summer of 1996, when a number of explosions occurred - including two in Moscow trolleybuses - and the government blamed them on Chechen terrorists.


The perpetrators were never found, and there was some speculation that they were the work of the Russian security services - particularly since at the time, politicians were discussing the possibilities of introducing a state of emergency and of postponing elections, claiming that the political situation was too explosive for democracy.


Once again talk of a state of emergency has raised its head. The Russian press has been filled with reports that it is being discussed, though President Boris Yeltsin firmly denied this Friday. Chechnya makes an easy target, since the separatist republic has seen a wave of kidnappings and other crimes that often spill over its borders.


"Official Chechen authorities are losing their ability to maintain law and order," Stepashin was quoted by Interfax as saying Friday.


The antagonism between Russia and its breakaway republic was further aggravated by the kidnapping last month of Interior Ministry General Gennady Shpigun, who is a personal friend of Stepashin's.


The interior minister vowed then that Shpigun would be freed even if it required radical military measures.


Shortly after Stepashin made his promise, an unconfirmed FSB report describing the increasing threat of terrorism from Chechnya was leaked to Russian newspapers in what appears to be a growing political and media campaign against Chechnya.


The document reportedly contained information about special terrorist training bases under the leadership of Chechen field commander Khattab. It was alleged that the trainees at Khattab's camps were planning attacks on Russian cities.


Nikolai Petrov of the Carnegie Moscow Center said that whatever the reason behind the increased number of warnings about Chechen attacks, the main one is most likely to be found in the Interior Ministry.


Stepashin, Petrov said, has not given up his pledge to punish Chechnya for kidnapping Shpigun.


"On the other hand there is a weak president, who no longer enjoys support from the West, who might need to be able to interfere in Russia's internal affairs, but who now can only rely on the Interior Ministry troops and the FSB," Petrov added.


"The president simply needs Stepashin. And judging by the intensity of the rumors about the possibility of introducing a state of emergency, this scenario might be looked at by the Kremlin as one of the options to cope with the situation."


Sergei Markov, the head of the Institute for Political Studies, said the problem is that Russia's political leadership has failed to deal with what is known as the Chechen problem.


"So factually it is left to a security force minister, and this is how people in this position act," Markov said.


He said the terrorist threat from Chechnya has indeed increased. Others disagreed.


"The terrorist threat from Chechnya is a constant concept. It is always there but not that great," said Alexander Iskandryan, the head of the Center of Caucasian Studies.He saidthose who talk of special training camps for terrorists have little knowledge about the real situation in Chechnya.


"These terrorists, even if they exist, are peasants in their free time. That means that they live in ordinary villages. An attempt to destroy these so-called terrorist bases would simply mean destroying villages populated by average people," Iskandryan said.


Iskandryan also said Russian officials were exaggerating the danger of Khattab, a native Jordanian. " Of course, he is not a Cinderella or a cherub, but he is not as vicious as he being painted by some."


***Anna Badkhen contributed to this report.***