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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Truck Bomb Kills 17 in South Russia

Even as investigators raced to solve two devastating explosions in Moscow, a blast rocked a southern Russian town Thursday - the fifth major explosion in 16 days of terror that have left at least 231 dead.

A truck bomb tore off the facade of a nine-story apartment building at 5:50 a.m. in Volgodonsk, killing at least 17 people and injuring several hundred, 69 of whom were hospitalized.

Television reports showed rescuers carrying the injured from the shattered building and a gaping crater 4 meters deep that filled with water from broken pipes. Firefighters battled flames on the building's upper floors. Those left homeless carried away what possessions they could salvage wrapped in blankets.

As in the other attacks, it was a large bomb that went off when people were at home asleep, maximizing casualties.

Authorities have blamed Islamic rebels fighting Russian troops in Dagestan, but rebel leaders have denied involvement. So has the government of Chechnya, where some of the rebels were based.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who met with the Cabinet to discuss how to fight the bombings, vowed decisive measures, saying "we must act decisively - grit our teeth and crush the vermin at the root." But it wasn't clear what measures the government could take to deal with a mushrooming security crisis.

The bombings began Aug. 31, with an explosion in the Manezh shopping center that killed one person and injured more than 40.

That was followed Sept. 2 by a bomb at military housing in Buinaksk in Dagestan that killed 64; an explosion that destroyed an apartment block on Ulitsa Guryanova in south Moscow Sept. 8, killing 94, and another apartment bombing that killed 119 on Monday on Kashirskoye Shosse.

The source of the bombings is murky, with no convincing claim of responsibility. A previously unknown group calling itself the Dagestan Liberation Army has taken responsibility for the Moscow and Buinaksk explosions. But some say battles between Moscow political factions are behind the bombings, and there has been news media speculation that the government may seize the chance to declare a state of emergency and cancel elections.

But Putin and President Boris Yeltsin have said repeatedly that there is no need for a state of emergency.

Moscow police continued toughened security measures, stopping vehicles and checking individuals' documents. Police said they uncovered 76 sacks of explosive material Thursday weighing 3 1/2 tons in a shed at a building site in southeast Moscow's Kapotnya district.

The explosive was disguised as sugar from a factory in Karachayevo-Cherkessia in the North Caucasus. Police found a similar stockpile disguised as sugar Wednesday, and linked it to the Moscow apartment bombings.

Volgodonsk law enforcement officials detained the driver of a GAZ-53 truck less than an hour after the blast and were still interrogating him Thursday evening, said Vasily Masyutin, spokesman for the Rostov-on-Don region of the Federal Security Service, or FSB. He said the incident was being investigated as a terrorist attack.

FSB officials refused to identify the driver, but said he lived in the apartment building devastated by the blast. He parked the truck out front and entered the building two hours before the blast.

"We are still undecided whether he was aware of the bomb," said Masyutin, whose service is investigating the blast as a terrorist attack.

Masyutin said it was possible the bomb was planted not in the truck, but in a sewage pipe under it.

The regional police force's spokesman, Alexander Polyansky, said Volgodonsk law-enforcers sealed all the exits from the city minutes after the attack, netting more than 100 people.

"We have detained everyone who raised our suspicions, but most of these people will probably be freed after identity checks," Polyansky said.

He said it was possible that the explosion could have been ordered by separatists based in Dagestan or Chechnya.

"Such a link looks most evident if we take into account the fighting in Dagestan and earlier blasts," Polyansky said. The FSB spokesman, however, refused to comment on whether his service is investigating the possibility of such a link.