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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Investigators Step Up Bid To Crack Bombings

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MINERALNIYE VODY, Southern Russia — A day of mourning was declared Monday in the Stavropol region for the people killed in a series of bomb explosions, while a huge security operation was under way to capture those responsible.

The death toll rose to 23 on Monday after two of the injured died overnight, and 68 people remained hospitalized, many of them in serious condition.

Car bombs exploded almost simultaneously Saturday in three towns near Chechnya in an act of terror that has damaged Moscow's claims that political unrest in the region is under control. Federal authorities immediately blamed the bombings on Chechen rebels.

The deadliest blast hit near a bustling market in the city of Mineralniye Vody, killing 21 people. A city spokeswoman said six of the victims were buried Monday.

The funerals were supposed to be low-key affairs held at different cemeteries but hundreds of mourners turned up with flowers to express their grief. Police guarded the processions as authorities endeavored to stave off feared new attacks.

Long funeral corteges rolled through the small town whose streets were lined with tearful residents. Crowds of emotional teenagers came to say goodbye to their schoolmate Anya Denezhkina, one of six children to die in the blast.

Alexander Chernogorov, governor of the Stavropol region, declared an official day of mourning and said the government would pay for the cost of the funerals as well as allocate 10,000 rubles ($350) for the families of the killed and 4,000 ($150) for each of the injured.

Two of the three explosions occurred in the region. The other bomb went off near a police station in the town of Yessentuki, killing no one but injuring a dozen people. A third explosion in neighboring Karachayevo-Cherkessia killed two bomb disposal experts as they tried to defuse a car bomb.

Security has been increased in the region, with troops patrolling crowded places, especially markets, with metal detectors as they look for explosives and suspicious bags. Thousands of leaflets have been distributed in parks, markets and movie theaters warning people to be vigilant.

Officials say they have arrested at least one strong suspect, apparently the driver of the car that killed the two bomb experts, and prosecutors in Chechnya said three other people had been detained in Grozny in connection with the blasts.

Interfax quoted Chechen prosecutor Vsevolod Chernov as saying they had been involved in eight earlier terrorist attacks in Grozny as well as in Pyatigorsk and Nevinnomyssk, two cities north of Chechnya. Chernogorov said other suspects are being detained "almost hourly," Interfax reported.

Prosecutor General Vladimir Ustinov said many suspects had already given testimony and he was confident the perpetrators would be brought to justice. "There is a string we are pulling, and the criminals will face trial sooner or later," Interfax quoted him as saying.

Ustinov has said investigators had reasons to believe rebel commander Khattab had ordered the bombings.

The attacks drew strong condemnation from outside Russia, including messages of sympathy from Belarus, Ukraine and the European Union. The Council of Europe called the bombings an attack against basic human rights.

(Reuters, AP)