MOSCOW — Nearly simultaneous car bombings in three towns near the border with the breakaway region of Chechnya killed at least 21 people Saturday and injured more than 100.
No one took responsibility for the blasts, but the Kremlin branded them terrorist attacks and blamed Chechen rebel leaders. Those assertions were bound to provoke fears inside Russia that the rebels, who have been holding out against the Russian Army in Chechnya for 18 months, might extend their battle for independence to Russian towns.
Russian television repeatedly broadcast the gruesome scene from the most devastating explosion, a market in Mineralnye Vody, 100 miles northwest of the Chechen border, where a car bomb killed at least 19 people and wounded about 100.
Several bodies lay on the debris-covered ground. A woman's body, mutilated by the blast, lay in a pool of blood, a bag of apples strewn around her. The remains of cars, incinerated and blown to bits, were scattered on the road in front of stores whose walls were blown out and windows shattered by the shock wave from the explosion. Doctors said some 30 people were critically wounded. "I went with my brother and father, we were looking for milk, then suddenly something blew up, I didn't understand," a teenage boy with a bandaged wound on his face told ORT television.
It was the deadliest blast outside Chechnya since a series of apartment bombings in summer 1999 killed 300 people. The Kremlin cited the 1999 bombings as justification to send its troops into Chechnya. Saturday, Russia blamed the Chechens again.
"Chechen fighters always talk about the necessity to commit acts of terror to keep the Russian population on edge," said senior Kremlin official Sergei Yastrzhembsky. "This alone gives grounds to consider separatists involved in today's acts of terror."
Almost at the same time as the Mineralnye Vody blast, another car bomb blew a hole in a traffic police office in the nearby town Yessentuki, injuring 23 people.
A third explosion killed two traffic policemen on a highway in the neighboring Karachayevo-Cherkessia region. The policemen had arrested the driver of the car, whose name the police did not release, when he offered them a $10,000 bribe. The car blew up as they were inspecting it.
President Vladimir Putin pledged that his government would do everything to find the culprits, and dispatched his Cabinet's top security and police officials to Mineralnye Vody. The explosions came a week after three men whom Russian officials identified as Chechens hijacked a Russian airliner with more than 170 people on board from Turkey to Saudi Arabia. Three people, including one hijacker, were killed when Saudi commandos stormed the plane.
The Kremlin views Chechen separatists as terrorists and accuses the West of supporting them. The Bush administration's plans to meet with envoys of Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov this month have contributed to the U.S.-Russia tension. Russian security service spokesman Alexander Zdanovich told Russian ORT television that troops prevented three terrorist acts in Chechnya on Friday.
"If we don't do something about these Islamic extremists we can expect new terrorist acts all around Russia," said Akhmad Kadyrov, the Kremlin-appointed ruler of Chechnya. "These are people of blood."
Globe researcher Anastasia Saschikhina contributed to this report.