A suicide car bomber killed at least 16 people and injured more than 100 Thursday at a market in the Russian Caucasus, the deadliest militant strike for months in the troubled region.
Officials said the blast in the city of Vladikavkaz in North Ossetia was caused by a suicide bomber who drove up to a local market in an explosives-packed car and whose headless body was later discovered.
The head of the FSB security service, Alexander Bortnikov, announced Thursday evening that three people had been detained on suspicion of involvement in the attack.
"Three have been detained on suspicion of carrying out this terrorist act. At the moment I can only give this information," Bortnikov told Russian news agencies after travelling to the scene.
|Investigators examine the site of a blast near a market in Vladikavkaz|
The bomb stuffed with metal bolts and metal bars created carnage around the busy market just before lunch, reducing several cars to wreckage and shattering windows of nearby buildings.
Half-naked charred corpses with disfigured faces were laid out on stretchers amid the remnants of tomatoes and melons from fruit stalls, as people wept looking for their loved ones.
"A headless man was sitting in a car and I realized that it was probably terrorists," Zhanna Margiyeva, an office worker who went to the market during lunchtime, said through tears.
"I am scared. My kid uses public transportation every day. This can happen to any of us any time."
Officials warned the death toll was likely to go up as many of the injured were in a critical condition.
The attack in the capital of the mainly Christian region of North Ossetia was the latest strike to hit the Russian Caucasus, plagued by an Islamist insurgency that has claimed scores of lives in the past months.
It was the deadliest attack in the Russian Caucasus since a truck bombing outside the police headquarters in Ingushetia in August 2009 killed 24.
President Dmitry Medvedev vowed to do everything to track down those behind the bombing.
"We will do everything to capture these monsters... these bastards, who carried out a terrorist act on ordinary people," Medvedev said. "We will do everything to find and punish them."
The death toll rose to 16 after an 18-month-old toddler died of his injuries, medical sources told AFP. The boy's three-year-old brother was also in intensive care.
The regional health minister Vladimir Selivanov said 123 people had been wounded, the RIA Novosti news agency reported.
Of the worst injured, 11 were airlifted to Moscow from the Beslan airport, the emergency situations ministry official said.
"A terrorist suicide bomber in a car parked at the entrance to the central market of Vladikavkaz ignited an explosive charge at 11:20 am (0720 GMT)," the investigative committee of Russian prosecutors said in a statement.
"The people who do this, these are people without a soul, without a heart," Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said.
"They have nothing holy. It is our common duty to fight these criminals," he said at a meeting with Russian Muslim leaders to mark the end of the holy fasting month of Ramadan.
US President Barack Obama condemned the "terrorist bombing".
"Our hearts go out to the people of North Ossetia, who have already suffered so much from horrific acts of terrorism. We offer our deepest condolences, and stand with the people of Russia in this time of tragedy.
"This bombing further underscores the resolve of the United States and Russia to work together in combating terrorism and protecting our people," Obama said in a written statement.
Maria Gatsoyeva, a spokeswoman for the regional investigators, told AFP the blast had been caused by explosives weighing 30-40 kilogrammes (66-88 pounds) of TNT equivalent.
North Ossetia lies at the heart of Russia's troubled Northern Caucasus region, north of the Georgian breakaway region of South Ossetia over which Moscow and Tbilisi fought a war in August 2008.
It is the only majority-Christian region in Russia's largely Muslim North Caucasus and borders the Muslim region of Ingushetia, which has been beset by deadly attacks over the last months.
North Ossetia was the site of one of Russia's most shocking tragedies in 2004 when more than 330 people died after armed Chechen rebels took more than 1,000 people hostage at a school in the town of Beslan.
Although it has seen increasing unrest over the past years, North Ossetia has traditionally been more stable than the Muslim regions of the North Caucasus.
Separately, officials indicated Thursday that rebels had aimed to blow up the Irganaiskaya hydroelectric power station in Dagestan, the second-largest in the Russian Caucasus.
An explosive device weighing three kilogrammes of TNT equivalent was found in the power station following a fire on Tuesday night, the local branch of the FSB security service said in a statement on Thursday.
Officials had earlier said that the fire was caused by a technical failure. Islamist website www.kavkazcenter.com said that the explosives had been planted by rebels.
Russia has been on a state of high alert after the double bombings carried out by two female suicide bombers on the Moscow metro on March 29 that killed 40 and wounded more than 100.