MOSCOW – At least 18 people were killed and dozens injured Sunday when a suicide bomber blew herself up in a train station in the southern Russian city of Volgograd ahead of the Olympic Games in nearby Sochi.
Regional officials said the woman set off her charge after being stopped at the metal detectors at the entrance to the city’s main train station while it was packed with afternoon travelers.
“It was a very powerful blast,” train station store attendant Valentina Petrichenko told the Vesti 24 news channel.
“Some people started running and others were thrown back by the wave of the blast,” she said. “It was very scary.”
State television footage showed windows blown out across the top two floors of the grey brick building and numerous ambulances gathered at the station’s front entrance amid piles of debris and snow.
“Initial indications are that the blast was set off by a female suicide bomber,” the National Anti-Terror Committee said in a statement.
Russia’s Investigative Committee spokesman Vladimir Markin said officials had launched an inquiry into a suspected “act of terror.”
A regional government spokesman told the state-run RIA Novosti news agency that at least 18 people were killed and more than 40 injured in the attack.
But a federal health ministry spokesman told Russian state television that the number of people wounded stood at more than 50.
Volgograd — known as Stalingrad in the Soviet era — was attacked as recently as October by a female suicide bomber with links to Islamists fighting federal forces in the nearby volatile North Caucasus.
The Oct. 21 strike killed six people aboard a crowded bus and immediately raised security fears ahead of the Feb. 7 to 23 Winter Games in Sochi. The Black Sea city lies 690 km southwest of Volgograd and in direct proximity to the violence ravaging such North Caucasus regions as Dagestan and Chechnya on a daily basis.
Militants are seeking to impose an Islamist state throughout Russia’s North Caucasus. Their leader Doku Umarov has ordered his footsoldiers to target civilians outside the region and disrupt the Olympic Games.
The Sochi Games’ success carries heavy political overtones for the Kremlin amid its efforts to use patriotism to mobilize support for President Vladimir Putin’s 14-year rule.
Putin staked his personal reputation on the Games’ success by lobbying for Sochi’s candidacy before the International Olympic Committee and then spending more than $50 billion (€36 billion) for the event.
The Kremlin said Putin was “immediately” informed of the attack.
“He received detailed reports with all the preliminary information,” Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Vesti 24 television.
“The president is also receiving reports as the events develop and new information comes in — first of all, this concerns the number of people injured and killed,” said the spokesman.
Peskov said Putin also issued orders to the emergency and health ministries to send the most gravely injured victims for necessary treatment to Moscow.
Russia’s interior ministry said separately that it was immediately stepping up security at all the nation’s main train stations and airports.
“These measures involve a greater police presence and more detailed passenger checks,” an interior ministry spokesman told the Interfax news agency.
Russian authorities have repeatedly vowed to take the highest security precautions in Sochi. There have been few indications to date of foreign sports fans cancelling their attendance out of security fears.
Female suicide bombers are often referred to in Russia as “black widows” — women who seek to avenge the deaths of their family members in North Caucasus fighting by targeting Russian civilians.
Female suicide bombers set off blasts at two Moscow metro stations in March 2010 that killed more than 35 people.
So-called black widows were also responsible for killing more than 90 people when they took down two passenger jets that took off from a Moscow airport within minutes of each other in 2004.