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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Blast in Underpass Kills 7, Injures 53

An explosion rocked the crowded underground passageway on Pushkin Square on Tuesday evening, killing seven people, injuring 53 and putting the city on edge once again.

Twenty minutes after the 6 p.m. blast, acrid black smoke still rose from the underground passage. People with bleeding faces and ripped clothing staggered out and collapsed on the sidewalk. Anyone who had been in the passageway, even if unhurt, was covered in soot.

"I was in the passage when it happened, I guess just 15 meters from the center of the explosion," said Stepan Konstantinov, 56. "It looked as if it was in one of the kiosks. First there was the blast and then a huge cloud of thick black smoke appeared, as if a boiler room was burning."

He was visibly shaken and his eyes brimmed with tears. "A girl died in front of my very eyes," he said. "She was burned all over and she kept on screaming and rolling on the ground. There was nothing I could do, she died before the ambulance came — it took them half an hour. I swore at them, yelled, but they just said they were called late and there was a big traffic jam."

Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov said almost immediately that he believed it to be the work of terrorists. He and Interior Minister Vladimir Rushailo said police have been ordered to tighten control over metro stations, other places likely to draw crowds and residential areas.

But Federal Security Service spokesman Alexander Zdanovich said later in an interview on Ekho Moskvy radio that it was too early to classify the explosion as a terrorist attack.

At a news conference, however, acting FSB head Vladimir Pronichev blamed the blast on "bandits" and "terrorists," terms often used to refer to Chechen rebels.

None of the officials openly pointed the finger at the Chechens, but their remarks evoked memories of last September’s apartment bombings and the fear that gripped the city at the time.

"We Muscovites should all understand we’re living in the capital of a country at war," said Alexander Muzykantsky, a high-ranking city official, on ORT television. "We should therefore make the conclusions that citizens of countries at war make."

Shamil Beno, the Moscow representative of Kremlin-appointed Chechen leader Akhmad Kadyrov, urged city and federal officials not to "exploit the tragedy" or "incite ethnic strife" by fueling suspicions that Chechens were behind the explosion.

Beno called on Russians not to make "unsubstantiated statements, but to wait for the results of the investigation into the tragedy," Interfax reported.

By late evening, Moscow police had distributed descriptions of two suspects in the bombing, according to Itar-Tass. One man was described as having a "clearly Caucasian" appearance; both were said to be 25 to 30 years old, wearing black jeans and short-sleeved shirts. The sketches appear to have been compiled on the basis of interviews with people present at the scene of the explosion.

The underpass, where three metro lines converge on Tverskaya Ulitsa, is lined with kiosks selling flowers, cosmetics, CDs, books and gifts. It is one of the most popular shopping and meeting places in the city.

Light smoke continued to come out of the underground passage for an hour or more, its bitter smell spreading over the square, where at least a dozen ambulances and Emergency Situations Ministry vehicles were parked. Rescue workers and medical staff carried the injured to the vehicles. Federal Security Service agents also were on the scene with the big letters FSB on their chests and backs.

Natalya Zulumatova watched it all silently, her hair smoldered and her hands and bare feet covered with blood.

"I was lucky," she said. "They just took a girl who was standing next to me, Tanya, who was completely burned."

Zulumatova was selling jewelry in Kiosk 43 deep in the underground passage. "The only explosion I heard was the blast of our lamps in the kiosk, and then I saw gusts of black smoke and felt debris falling over my head. I don’t know how I managed to scramble out. There was so much smoke around, I think the people who lost consciousness must have simply suffocated."

She remembers there was the usual crowd of commuters, "so many people, they were all coming back from work."

Alyona, 28, who sells office materials in the passageway, was also lucky. "I was standing on the stairs at that moment, that’s how I survived," she said, her face swollen from crying. "But Volodya, the boy who was selling videotapes, they took him out completely burned."

She just remembers the bang and then smoke, dust and parts of burned clothes falling all over. "A kiosk where they were selling theater tickets, just a few meters away from where I stood, simply disappeared," she said.

Rescue worker Odat Maruan said the bomb was apparently placed haphazardly on the ground in front of the theater ticket kiosk, The Associated Press reported.

The steps down into the dark passageway were covered in debris: shattered CDs, glass shards, broken chairs, a mannequin. Flowers and plastic bags of mushrooms that had been abandoned by people selling them at the entrance were scattered around firemen resting on the steps.

About 9 p.m., ORT aired footage of rescue workers with flashlights searching the underground passageway where several charred, bloody corpses lay among broken glass. Less than an hour later, ORT reported that one woman and one man had been found alive under the wreckage.

Pronichev said seven people were killed and 53 injured, 12 of them seriously. He was filling in for FSB head Nikolai Patrushev, who was on vacation but flew back to Moscow later Tuesday evening.

President Vladimir Putin ordered the creation of a special commission to investigate the blast, Pronichev said at the news conference.

Luzhkov, who arrived on the scene within an hour of the blast, urged Muscovites to be vigilant and contact police if they notice anything suspicious.

"The nature of this crime is evident: The explosion occurred in a crowded place at rush hour," Interfax quoted Luzhkov as saying.

Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu echoed the mayor. "We must appeal to people in order to reestablish the system of vigilance that was introduced last year," Shoigu said at the news conference.

The blast came two days after security forces had been on alert in case of possible attacks by Chechen separatists to mark the Aug. 6, 1996, anniversary of their retaking of Grozny in the 1994-96 war.

Earlier Tuesday, anti-organized crime agents seized large batches of explosives during raids in Moscow and Ryazan, Itar-Tass reported, citing the Interior Ministry, which said its agents had been informed that the explosives were intended for terrorist acts by Chechen separatists. Tensions Grow as Toll Rises To 118, The Moscow Times, Sept. 15, 1999 Moscow Awash in Explosion Theories, The Moscow Times, Sept. 14, 1999 Second Bombing Brings Terror to City, The Moscow Times, Sept. 14, 1999 Apartment Block Explodes, Dozens Dead, The Moscow Times, Sept. 10, 1999 Did Hamburger Haters Bomb Manezh?, The Moscow Times, Sept. 2, 1999 Manezh Bomb Latest in a Series of Unsolved Cases, The Moscow Times, Sept. 2, 1999 Blast Rocks Manezh Mall, Injuring 30, The Moscow Times, Sept. 1, 1999