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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Ryazan Fears Darker Truth of Bombings

RYAZAN, Central Russia -- On a chilly night last September, bus driver Alexei Kartofelnikov saw a suspicious car parked outside the 13-story apartment building where he lives in this working-class city. He called the police, who discovered three sacks of powder and a timing device in the basement.

The sacks tested positive for explosives. The residents were evacuated and, haunted by the knowledge that 300 sleeping Russians had been killed in recent weeks in a wave of early-morning apartment bombings, spent the night dozing fitfully in a nearby movie theater.

Late the next day, security officials in Moscow announced that it had all been a civil defense drill. The sacks, they said, contained nothing but sugar.

Since then, Kartofelnikov and the other residents have kept asking themselves: Was it really just an exercise to test their vigilance? Or were they nearly the next victims of the bombers - whoever they might be?

Security officials insist the culprits are linked to Chechen fighters but have produced no conclusive evidence. For the most part, Russians buy the explanation.

But some fear that the truth is darker, and the 250 residents of Kartofelnikov's building are among them. At a minimum, they believe the government is covering up something. At a maximum, they fear the government might itself have played a role in the bombings.

Kartofelnikov, 47, considers himself a sensible man. He tends to give people the benefit of the doubt. But at this point, he has too much doubt.

"Somebody tried to blow us up," he says. "I have no doubt about that. But as for who did it, or why - I don't know what to think."

But he does know what came next. The government, citing the attacks, went to war against Chechnya.

"The government started bombing Chechnya the next day," Kartofelnikov says quietly. "I know Chechens. I served with them in the army. They are good people. How can one suspect them of such a thing? How can one suspect it of anybody?"

Ivan Kirilin, 67, also has his suspicions. "Who should I believe - what the government says or what was in the basement?" he says. "I don't think the Chechens would blow up a residential house. You have to ask - who is responsible for the war? Who needed the war? The government, of course."

Questions of government complicity in the bombing campaign are persistent enough that the Kremlin has taken steps to quash them.

In Ryazan, the government's assertions have made little headway against residents' suspicions. There are too many details that don't fit. And there's the undeniable fact that the bombings led to the war, and the war fed the rise of Vladimir Putin.

"The authorities are trying hard to hush it up and hide everything," Tatyana Borycheva, 45, says. "I don't believe the Chechens were behind it. I think it's a big political game. People are fighting for power, and our lives are not worth a kopek in their game. I think somebody wanted to set up the Chechens to start the war and grab power."

Residents keep reviewing the sequence of events, seeking some kind of answers to their questions.

Kartofelnikov was returning home about 9:10 p.m. when he noticed an ordinary Zhiguli parked next to his building's entrance.

When Kartofelnikov got closer, he realized it had an unusual license plate number - the last two numbers, which indicate the city in which the car is registered, had been pasted over with a hand-drawn piece of paper. The glued-on number was 62, for Ryazan. Underneath, he could see the real number - 77, for Moscow.

At the time, the country was in near-hysteria over the bombing campaign. So Kartofelnikov called the police. A few minutes later, so did Vladimir Vasilyev, a 53-year-old radio engineer, who not only saw the Zhiguli and the pasted-on license numbers but got a look at the people inside before it pulled away. There were two men and a woman, he says. They looked not like Chechens, but like Russians. Still, Vasilyev wasn't taking any chances.

By 9:20 p.m., the police were on their way. The car was gone by the time they arrived. They went straight to the basement and found the sacks of white powder and the timing device. The bomb squad did a quick test and detected explosive vapors.

"Our preliminary tests showed the presence of explosives," Lieutenant Colonel Sergei Kabashov, chief of the local police precinct, says. "We weren't told it was a test. As far as we were concerned, the danger was real."

The local branch of the FSB was also in the dark.

It was late the next day, during the evening news, that FSB chief Nikolai Patrushev announced that the bomb scare had been just a drill.

"Of course no investigation is going on now in relation to this case. It was just an exercise," Yury Bludov, the FSB spokesman in Ryazan, says.

Without an investigation to probe further, residents will keep asking themselves the same questions:

-If it really was a test, why did the authorities wait nearly 24 hours to say so?

-Why haven't there been reports of tests in other cities?

And then there are larger questions concerning the overall bombing campaign:

-Why would Chechen terrorists kill defenseless civilians in anonymous apartment buildings instead of choosing public targets like train stations or government buildings?

-Why has there been no credible claim of responsibility? Chechen authorities have denied any involvement by the separatists.

-Why were the remains of the Moscow buildings razed so quickly?

In the days after the Ryazan incident, the local FSB chief came to speak to the apartment building's residents. He apologized but told them that filing a suit for damages would probably lead nowhere.

So the residents asked for, and got, a new entranceway of heavy white brick, with an intercom security system. And they haven't filed a suit or a formal complaint.

"The general opinion is that we'd better not challenge them or they will really blow us up next time," Tatyana Lukichyova, 51, says.