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Russian police hunt suspected bombers

injured man
Police officers carry a stretcher with an injured man, after a bomb exploded  

March 20, 1999
Web posted at: 6:17 a.m. EST (1117 GMT)

MOSCOW (CNN) -- A manhunt was under way in Russia Saturday for a man and a woman suspected of carrying out a devastating bomb attack that killed at least 53 people and wounded more than 100 in an outdoor food market in southern Russia.

The blast shortly before noon on Friday in the North Ossetian capital Vladikavkaz was the worst violence to hit the small southern republic since a 1992 ethnic war in which hundreds were killed.

Republic president Alexander Dzasokhov called it a crime "against the whole multinational people of the republic," the ITAR-Tass news agency reported.

Police could not offer any motive for the bombing. Possible reasons for the attack included local ethnic tension, an attack by extremists from nearby Chechnya or a turf war between rival criminal gangs, officials said.
The bomb devasted the crowded market, killing some 53 people  

Local television stations aired police composites of a man and a woman authorities suspect of carrying out the attack, the Interfax news agency reported. So far no one has been arrested in connection with the blast.

President Boris Yeltsin 's envoy to the region said late Friday that a "diversionary group" had claimed responsibility for the blast in a long-distance phone call to Vladikavkaz, ITAR-Tass reported.

Vladimir Kalamanov said the group had not identified itself, but that its message suggested that the motive behind the blast was "religious fanaticism."

The majority religion in Northern Ossetia is Russian Orthodox Christian, and several of its neighbors are predominantly Muslim.

Yeltsin apologizes

Yeltsin himself went on state television on Friday to ask forgiveness from the victims' families for the lapse in security.

"I apologize to the families of the victims, I apologize, because I carry the responsibility for it all," Yeltsin said slowly, without elaborating. He vowed to undertake a "merciless fight" against the perpetrators.

Yeltsin has been widely blamed for launching the botched war in Chechnya, which claimed independence from Russia after the 1994-1996 fighting. A series of violent crimes, including kidnappings and bomb attacks, have kept tensions in Chechnya and surrounding Russian regions on the boil.

In a telegram to Dzasokhov, Yeltsin said he considered the bombing "an attempt to destabilize the situation in the northern Caucasus, to sow enmity and hatred."

The government had said that 62 people were killed in the blast, but revised the death toll Saturday to 53. Police said there had been confusion about the number of dead because many of the bodies had been torn to shreds and emergency workers had to reassemble the shattered corpses.

Attesting to the mutilation that the bomb caused, police said that only 21 of the dead had been identified so far, according to Interfax.

Nadezhda Pagiyeva, a press officer in Dzasokhov's administration, said more than 100 people were wounded. The local hospital was packed with the injured and with people searching for their missing relatives and friends.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Market bomb in Russia kills more than 60
March 19, 1999

Vladikavkaz-administrative center of Republic of North Ossetia, Russia
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