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Russian officials link religious extremists to bombing

market aftermath
The aftermath of the bombing on Friday  

Death toll lowered to 51



March 20, 1999
Web posted at: 2:21 p.m. EST (1921 GMT)

MOSCOW (CNN) -- The Russian government said Saturday that religious extremists could be responsible for the bombing of a market in the troubled Caucasus that killed more than 50 and wounded three times that many.

Officials revised downwards the death toll from Friday's blast, saying 51 were killed when the bomb tore through the main market in Vladikavkaz, the capital of North Ossetia, about 50 km (30 miles) from Russia's breakaway republic of Chechnya.

Previously police had estimated that as many as 61 died in the blast.

"World analogies, as a rule, indicate that representatives of religious fanatics are often responsible for such acts," Interior Minister Sergei Stepashin told Russian television.

Stepashin said bomb fragments would be examined in Moscow laboratories for clues.

Two suspects sought

Meanwhile, Russian television aired composite sketches of a man and woman sought in connection with the bombing. Police said the pair dropped off a bag in the market and left just minutes before the explosion.

The bomb was the worst violence to hit the small southern republic since a 1992 ethnic war in which hundreds were killed.

Lev Dzugayev, a spokesman for the North Ossetian government, said no opposition group in the region was capable of such an act. "It must be outside forces," he said.

A region awash in animosity

The majority religion in North Ossetia is Russian Orthodox Christian, and several of its neighbors are predominantly Muslim. The region is awash in political, religious and ethnic hatred.

Russian troops had to step in to quell a 1992 conflict between North Ossetians and largely-Muslim Ingush, longtime ethnic rivals.

And Moscow suffered a major defeat in the region when Chechen separatists battled Russian troops to a standstill in 1996 and declared independence.

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, the Russian news agency 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."

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.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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Vladikavkaz-administrative center of Republic of North Ossetia, Russia
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