- - Monday, December 30, 2013

MOSCOW — Two deadly bombings within 24 hours in the southern Russian city of Volgograd have highlighted the vulnerability of “soft” targets before the Winter Olympics begin in the Black Sea resort of Sochi in February, sparking fears that militant fighters could be planning a major offensive.

“Today, Volgograd was hit, but there is very little the security forces can do to stop a determined suicide bomber,” said analyst Maxim Agarkov, a former Russian Interior Ministry official. “Even the high level of security in Sochi wouldn’t be able to entirely guard against attacks.”

Russian authorities ordered increased security units at train stations, bus depots and other facilities across the country Monday after a suicide bomber killed 14 people on an electric bus in Volgograd, less than 24 hours after a similar attack killed at least 15 people at a railway station in the same city.

In addition, Russian media reported Monday that hundreds of police have been redeployed from Volgograd in recent weeks to assist with the security operation in Sochi, leaving the city vulnerable to attack.

“[Militants] carry out explosions wherever they can,” Andrei Serenko, a political commentator in Volgograd, said in comments carried by the Vestnik Kavkaza news website. “And today Volgograd is seen as a soft target.”

With Russia reeling in the aftermath of the two bombings, the White House offered Monday to assist with security at the Winter Olympics.

“The United States stands in solidarity with the Russian people against terrorism,” said National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden. “The U.S. government has offered our full support to the Russian government in security preparations for the Sochi Olympic Games, and we would welcome the opportunity for closer cooperation for the safety of the athletes, spectators and other participants.”

The comments may indicate that U.S. officials fear for the safety of Americans at the games, which get under way Feb. 7.

Russia gave no immediate response to the U.S. offer.

In London, the president of the International Olympic Committee expressed confidence that Russian authorities will provide for a “safe and secure” event in Sochi despite the bombings.

“This is a despicable attack on innocent people and the entire Olympic Movement joins me in utterly condemning this cowardly act,” IOC President Thomas Bach said in a statement. “Our thoughts are with the loved ones of the victims.”

More than 30 people have been killed and dozens injured in suicide bombings this week in Volgograd — first on Sunday at the city’s main train station and again Monday morning in a crowded bus. The city also was hit in October, when a female suicide bomber killed six in an attack on a bus.

Volgograd, formerly known as Stalingrad, is 400 miles northeast of Sochi and 550 miles south of Moscow.

The city was attacked in the aftermath of a call by the leader of Russia’s Islamist insurgency, Doku Umarov, for his followers to use “any methods Allah allows us” to disrupt the Winter Games.

Umarov, who is Chechen, has claimed responsibility for several high-profile militant attacks, including a bombing at Moscow’s Domodedovo International Airport in January 2011 that killed 37 people. His Caucasus Emirate movement is seeking to carve out an Islamic state in Russia’s mainly Muslim Caucasus region.

Russian authorities said in May that they had uncovered a plot by Umarov to use surface-to-air missiles to attack the Sochi Games, which will host about 2,500 athletes from dozens of countries from Feb. 7 through Feb. 23.

“Unfortunately, in light of Umarov’s comments this July, we should presume that the attacks in Volgograd were connected to the Sochi Olympic Games,” said Andrei Soldatov, an investigative journalist. “It would make little sense otherwise to attack the city now.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin summoned officials to report on the attacks and sent Alexander Bortnikov, head of the Federal Security Service, the main KGB successor agency, to Volgograd to oversee the investigation. Mr. Putin has staked his reputation on the Sochi Games, and Russia has spent more than $50 billion to prepare for the Olympics — the most ever, analysts say.

After meeting with security officials in Volgograd, Mr. Bortnikov expressed confidence that officials will discover quickly who was responsible for the attacks.

No group has claimed responsibility for the blasts, but the Interfax news agency, citing a law enforcement source, has identified the Sunday bomber as Pavel Pechyonkin, an ethnic Russian who converted to radical Islam while living in the predominantly Muslim city of Kazan.

Vladimir Markin, a spokesman for Russia’s main investigative agency, said the Monday explosion involved a bomb similar to the one used Sunday.

“That confirms the investigators’ version that the two terror attacks were linked,” Mr. Markin said in a statement.

Mr. Soldatov warned that the blasts in Volgograd could be “diversionary tactics” to draw security forces’ attention away from Sochi as militant fighters plan a large-scale attack on the Winter Games. He suggested, however, that there was little the forces could do to bolster security in Sochi.

“Everything that should have been done in Sochi has already been done,” he said. “There is also the danger that militants will attack any city in Russia during the games. Moscow, Volgograd, wherever. International media will already be in Russia to cover the Olympics.”

Authorities in Russia plan to deploy tens of thousands of soldiers and police officers to Sochi to ensure the safety of athletes and visitors. Also among the array of security measures are the use of drones and high-speed patrol boats to secure the Black Sea coast.

Protests have been outlawed near the Olympic sites, and visitors to the games will undergo stringent identity checks.

Still, Mr. Putin appears to have few options when dealing with Umarov and his Islamist fighters. In the wake of apartment bombings in Moscow and other cities in 1999, Mr. Putin, as prime minister, ordered an attack on the breakaway republic of Chechnya.

The Kremlin, however, has since installed a loyal former militant fighter named Ramzan Kadyrov as leader of Chechnya, and an uneasy peace has returned to the republic. The insurgency that began in Chechnya has shifted to the neighboring republic of Dagestan, where Russian federal forces have been fighting a low-level insurgency for years.

“This is a completely different situation from the one Putin was faced with in 1999,” Mr. Soldatov said.

Ben Wolfgang contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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