MOSCOW – Hundreds of Russians, clutching carnations for the dead, marked 10 years on Tuesday since a string of bombing attacks destroyed several suburban apartment blocks and killed nearly 300 people across the country.
Sobbing relatives and friends of 93 victims placed flowers at a small memorial where one apartment was bombed on Sept. 9, 1999 – the second of four explosions that triggered panic across the nation and prompted the government launched a series of military attacks on the southern province of Chechnya. However, questions of whether authorities might have been involved in the blasts linger.
“The feeling tonight is terrible,” said Viktor Zakharchik, 57, who lives in an adjacent building. “We lost many neighbours, acquaintances.”
Zakharchik was among the hundreds who gathered in the stuffy summer night for the 10th anniversary of the blasts. An honour guard placed wreaths at the memorial just after midnight, accompanied by the sounds of a tolling bell blaring from nearby speakers.
Many in attendance waved reporters away from the event, either too upset to comment or, perhaps, scared into silence by the myraid killings and disappearances linked to the blasts in years since.
The attacks between Sept. 4 and Sept. 16 obliterated an apartment block in Buynanksk, one in Volgodonsk and two in Moscow. A week later, police in the city of Ryazan said they’d found explosives in an apartment block there, but federal officials said the substance was actually household sugar and the incident was a security drill.
The official investigation into the blasts ended in 2002. Several people were convicted and sentenced to life in prison, but the man authorities say masterminded the attacks, alleged Chechen crime boss Achemez Gochiyayev, is thought to remain at large.
Vladimir Putin, then Russia’s little-known new prime minister, rode to popularity on the back of the military campaign in Chechnya and was subsequently elected president.
Rights activists have accused officials of involvement in apartment blasts, pointing to the suspicious deaths of several independent investigators since and hitherto unexplained circumstances.
One of the most mysterious is the 2003 death of parliamentarian Yury Shchekochikhin, who was a member of an independent commission of lawmakers and others investigating allegations that the Federal Security Service – the main successor agency to the KGB – organized the blasts.
Shchekochikhin died after a brief, mysterious ailment that caused him to lose his hair and suffer severe skin problems. His supporters say he was poisoned. Russian authorities have opened and closed investigations into his death several times.
Another lawmaker Sergei Yushenkov, who was vice chairman of the same investigating commission, was shot dead near his Moscow home in 2003, just after complaining of threats from Russian security officials.
Former Russian security officer Alexander Litvinenko, who fled to London after publicly accusing authorities of using death squads to eliminate undesirables, alleged official complicity in the blasts in his 2002 book “Blowing up Russia: Terror from within,” co-authored with Yuri Felshtinsky.
In November 2006, around the time he met with former Russian security officials in London, Litvinenko was poisoned with radioactive polonium and died in a London hospital weeks later.
Russia has refused to hand over to Britain the chief suspect, Andrei Lugovoi. Lugovoi has since become a nationalist politician.
Former Novaya Gazeta reporter Anna Politkovskaya, gunned down in Moscow a few weeks before Litvinenko died, also investigated the bombings.
Associated Press Writer David Nowak contributed to this report.