Tue January 25, 2011

Security Lapses Blamed For Russian Airport Blast

Russia is picking up the pieces after a massive attack at its busiest airport Monday. At least 35 people are dead and more than 100 others are injured after what authorities believe was a suicide bombing in the arrivals area at Domodedovo Airport outside Moscow.

Images of the carnage landed on YouTube, in amateur video apparently recorded by witnesses. Russian leaders are calling the bombing an act of terrorism. They face the challenge of calming a shaken country, while convincing the world that Russia is not descending into ethnic war.

The bomb erupted in a part of the airport that people know well. It's that spot where people gather to meet passengers, where you can scan the crowd emerging from customs and run to embrace your friends or loved ones as soon as you spot them.

Johann Hammerer, a traveler from Austria, was collecting his luggage at the conveyor belt when there was a deafening explosion. When he carefully moved into the arrivals hall, it was chaos that greeted him — people screaming, victims being loaded onto baggage carts.

"Some of them were really badly injured," Hammerer says. "Everything was bloody — their head, their legs. Some of them were laying. They took two trolleys and were laying over the trolleys. I think one of them was dead."

It was surprising, though, how quickly life returned to normal — or at least tried to. After reporting on the incident, my colleague and I searched for a cab driver to take us home.

Sergei Komarov, 44, just hours earlier had been standing in the arrivals hall waiting for a fare. When the bomb went off, spraying chunks of metal and shrapnel in all directions, Komarov was spared. The people around him were not.

"One man, he fell down," Komarov recalls. "His leg was torn off. He was crawling along, pulling himself by his hands. He was groaning and went on crawling, without a leg. And there were all these pieces of flesh. This is the first time I have ever seen this. I am in shock. I still can't get myself together."

I asked Komarov why, after taking in such a grim scene, he was already back to work.

"I don't know," he answered. "I have a schedule that I have to keep to. There's no way I can call my boss and say I'm not working anymore today."

That's the Russian mindset. No matter what, you remain tough and stoic. But that's becoming more difficult with each new violent attack.

Over the past 14 months, bombs have derailed a luxury train, killed commuters on the Moscow subway and now claimed lives at this gleaming international airport.

President Dmitry Medvedev had planned to head to Switzerland on Monday to brag about his country's economic potential while attending the World Economic Forum. Instead, he canceled the trip and went on television to talk about the bombing.

"After previous similar events, we passed appropriate legislation," Medvedev said. "We have to check how it has been applied, because obviously there have been lapses. And we must get to the bottom of this."

One place to look, Medvedev said, is at security in the airport.

All airports struggle with the question of what to do about areas outside the security perimeter, where, in general, anyone is free to roam.

Given the terrorism risk in Russia, Domodedovo has metal detectors at airport entrances. Yet they are used only occasionally, meaning a person could have walked into the arrivals hall Monday without being screened.

So far, no one has claimed responsibility for the attack. Government officials suspect a suicide bombing, and one investigator told state media that the remains of the presumed bomber were found.

In past attacks, militants from the North Caucasus have been responsible. That's the volatile region of southern Russia where an Islamist insurgency is raging.

Following any incident like this, there's the fear of retaliation against people of Caucasian descent. They often have darker complexions and face routine discrimination in Russia.

Ethnic tensions were already high last month, when nationalists staged a series of riots in central Moscow, chanting slurs against Caucasians and yelling "Russia is for Russians!"

After this airport bombing, all eyes will also be on Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. His policy has long been to respond to acts of terrorism by targeting suspected insurgents in the Caucasus, and tightening the government's control over society. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.