MOSCOW(Reuters)–A truck bomb exploded outside an apartment block near a dam and an unfinished nuclear plant in Russia on Thursday–killing 17 people in the third attack in a week and putting more pressure on Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
"A man drove up around 6 a.m.," regional Interior Ministry spokesman Dmitry Nevzorov said by telephone. "He left the vehicle and about 15 minutes later it blew up."
No one claimed responsibility for the blast in the southern town of Volgodonsk–which left a huge crater filled with murky water and ripped the facade off a nine-story block that was home to more than 400 people. Dozens of people were injured.
Russian officials blamed earlier attacks on Chechen-backed Moslem rebels who have been fighting Russian forces in the North Caucasus region of Dagestan. Chechnya denies involvement.
For their part–the Kremlin and the FSB domestic intelligence agency denied reports security forces themselves might be to blame for explosions in which nearly 300 have died.
"Here we are up against obvious wickedness," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Yakushkin said in a statement on the reports.
The FSB said the media reports–including one in the Moskovsky Komsomolyets daily which said the aim was to provoke a state of emergency and cancel elections–were lies.
Political speculation mounted in Moscow–where conspiracy theories abound – that President Boris Yeltsin could be about to ditch his favored successor Putin for failing to halt the violence. Equally unsubstantiated rumors said it was Yeltsin who could be about to go.
The Kremlin has dismissed such talk. Putin simply told his cabinet to work harder and signed an order boosting security.
"I urge you not to dither or panic but to grit your teeth," he told the cabinet after meeting Yeltsin. "I’m calling on you to be more disciplined and vigilant–in deeds not words."
FSB spokesman Alexander Zdanovich said the latest blast was being treated as a "terrorist act," like the others.
An Emergencies Ministry spokesman’said 17 people had been killed in the explosion–two of them children. Sixty-nine people were taken to hospital–20 of them seriously injured.
Television pictures from Volgodonsk–750 miles south of Moscow–showed rescuers scrambling over rubble to retrieve mangled bodies on improvised blanket stretchers.
A set of bathroom scales lay among the ruins and a radiator hung precariously from one flat. The facade was missing from a large section of the prefabricated building.
Volgodonsk was founded for workers building a Stalin-era hydro-electric plant and dam. It later grew to a town of 180,000 after a factory opened to build nuclear equipment. An unfinished atomic station stands eight miles from the blast site.
"The plant was–as the specialists say–90 percent finished but the block is now mothballed," an atomic energy spokesman’said. "There has never been nuclear fuel at the station."
Officials told Reuters the nearby dam was well guarded.
Moscow was hit by two devastating bombs–one on Monday which killed 118 people and the other a week ago which killed 94.
A bomb in Buynaksk in Dagestan killed 64 on September 4. A woman died after a smaller Moscow explosion on August 31.
Nevzorov–speaking from the regional center Rostov-on-Don–said the Volgodonsk block had been checked on Wednesday as part of a nationwide security operation dubbed "Operation Whirlwind."
It was not clear why Volgodonsk was chosen as a target but on Monday Russian journalist Vyacheslav Izmailov said a Chechen-led band composed mainly of ethnic Slavs had been formed and sent to Moscow–St. Petersburg–Dagestan–and Rostov.
Yeltsin ordered "Operation Whirlwind" across Russia following the earlier attacks–which spread near-panic through the population–particularly in Moscow.
He said Russia had the will and means to eradicate terrorism.
But Boris Berezovsky–an influential businessman–took a different view at a news conference denying he had had dealings with Chechen officials. He said the bombings would go on.
"The Rubicon has been crossed," RIA news agency quoted him as saying. "The fighters have nothing to lose and we have nothing to oppose them with."