- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 7, 2004

MOSCOW (AP) — An explosion tore through a Moscow apartment building before dawn today, injuring five persons and forcing police to evacuate the rest of the 12-story building, Russian news media reported.

Four persons died in the fire, Agence France-Presse quoted an official with the Moscow fire department as saying.

Authorities said the blast may have been caused by a gas leak.

The explosion struck at about 4:20 a.m., destroying several apartments in the building, news agencies said. The radio station Echo of Moscow reported five persons were injured.

Officials at the Emergency Situations Ministry could not immediately be reached for comment.

The blast occurred in a building on Chertanovsky Street, a thoroughfare on the southern edge of the city, and appeared to have been centered in a fourth-floor apartment.

The cause of the blast was not immediately determined, although authorities said initial indications were that it was caused by gas.

Sofia Alimova, who lives on the building’s 10th floor, said the blast was centered in a one-room apartment occupied by a couple.

“We heard a loud bang, and I ran to the window because all the car alarms were going off. I looked out the window, and it seemed quiet, but a neighbor called and said there was an explosion on the fourth floor,” she said.

“I put my coat on over my nightgown and left as quickly as I could,” she said, standing in the snowy street near the building.

Natural-gas explosions in Russia’s often-shabby apartment buildings are not uncommon, but fears about terrorism are running high after a series of explosions that authorities blame on Chechen separatist rebels, including a bombing last month on the Moscow subway that killed 41 persons.

About 300 people died in apartment explosions in September 1999 that officials blamed on the rebels.

After the explosion, police and emergency workers began evacuating other residents of the building. Dozens of city buses were brought to the scene to carry the evacuees, reports said.

Security concerns also have been high in the Russian capital ahead of March 14 presidential elections, with authorities speculating that terrorists could attack to disrupt the voting or tarnish incumbent President Vladimir Putin, who is expected to win.

On Friday night, a bomb exploded at a building in central Moscow that reportedly was being converted into a Jewish school. No one was injured.

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