Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin has vowed to destroy those responsible for the Moscow metro suicide attacks that killed at least 37 and injured 65 others.
Two female suicide bombers struck packed metro trains during morning rush hour. Witnesses described panic at two central stations, with commuters falling over each other in dense smoke and dust as they tried to escape the worst attack on the Russian capital in six years.
“A crime that is terrible in its consequences and heinous in its manner has been committed,” Mr Putin said at the start of a video conference with senior emergencies officials.
“I am confident that law enforcement bodies will spare no effort to track down and punish the criminals. Terrorists will be destroyed,” said Mr Putin, who was on a visit to the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk.
Federal Security Service (FSB) chief Alexander Bortnikov said the bombs were filled with bolts and iron rods.
He linked the attacks to the North Caucasus, where Moscow faces a growing threat from Islamist insurgents who have threatened to hit Russian cities and economic targets.
Officials said the death toll could rise, with about 30 people badly injured.
The first blast tore through the second carriage of a metro train just before 8:00am (local time) as it stood at the Lubyanka station, close to the headquarters of Russia’s main domestic security service FSB. It killed at least 23 people.
About 40 minutes later, another blast in the second or third carriage of a train waiting at the Park Kultury metro station, opposite Gorky Park, killed 12 to 14 more people, an emergencies ministry spokeswoman said by telephone.
“It was very scary. I saw a dead body,” said Valentin Popov, a 19-year-old student travelling on a train to the Park Kultury station said.
“Everyone was screaming. There was a stampede at the doors. I saw one woman holding a child and pleading with people to let her through, but it was impossible.”
Photographers saw body bags being brought out of both stations.
Mr Putin cemented his power in 1999 by launching an ultimately successful war to overthrow a separatist government lodged in the Chechen capital Grozny.
Russian leaders fear the loss of this region endangering energy transit routes could destabilise other areas in a vast country with a large Muslim minority.
The Kremlin had declared victory in its battle with Chechen separatists who fought two wars with Moscow, but violence has intensified in the neighbouring regions of Dagestan and Ingushetia, where Islamist militancy overlaps with clan rivalries and criminal rings amid deep poverty.
The chief of the FSB, the main successor to the Soviet-era KGB, told Russian president Dmitry Medvedev: “Body parts belonging to two female suicide bombers were found…and according to initial data, these persons are linked to the North Caucasus.”
Eye witnesses spoke of panic after the blasts, which ripped through stations just a few kilometres from the Kremlin.
“I was in the middle of the train when somewhere in the first or second carriage there was a loud blast. I felt the vibrations reverberate through my body,” an unidentified man who was on a train at Park Kultury told RIA news agency.
Surveillance camera footage posted on the internet showed several motionless bodies lying on the floor or slumped against the wall in Lubyanka station lobby and emergency workers crouched over victims, trying to treat them.
“I was moving up on the escalator when I heard a loud bang, a blast. A door near the passage way arched, was ripped out and a cloud of dust came down on the escalator,” a man named Alexei told the state-run Rossiya 24 news television channel.
Jonathan Eyal, of London’s Royal United Services Institute, saw a personal challenge to Mr Putin, who remains the chief power in the land.
“This is a direct affront to Vladimir Putin, whose entire rise to power was built on his pledge to crush the enemies of Russia…It’s an affront to his muscular image.”
The current death toll makes it the worst attack on Moscow since February 2004, when a suicide bombing killed at least 39 people and wounded more than 100 on a metro train.
Chechen separatists were blamed for that attack. Rebel leader Doku Umarov, who is fighting for an Islamic emirate embracing the whole region, vowed last month to take the war to Russian cities.
“Blood will no longer be limited to our (Caucasus) cities and towns. The war is coming to their cities,” the Chechen rebel leader said in an interview.
The Chechen rebellion began in the 1990s as a largely ethnic nationalist movement, fired by a sense of injustice over the 1940s transportation of Chechens to Central Asia, with enormous loss of life, by dictator Josef Stalin.
Largely since the second war, Russian officials say, Islamic militants from outside Russia have joined the campaign, lending it a new intensity.
Analysts said the involvement of women recalled the phenomenon of the “Black Widows” in Chechnya, women who had lost brothers or husbands to Russian forces in the Chechen conflict. ABC