Russian investigators discovered traces of an improvised bomb Saturday on the rail line between Moscow and St. Petersburg where a train derailment killed at least 26 people in what appeared to be the nation's worst terrorist attack in years outside the volatile North Caucasus.
The device exploded with the force of 15 pounds of TNT as a popular luxury express train, the Nevsky Express, passed over it Friday night in a wooded area about 200 miles northwest of Moscow. The blast threw at least three carriages from the tracks, injuring as many as 100 passengers and leaving a 5-foot-deep crater, officials said.
Russian authorities named no immediate suspects or motive, but the investigation was expected to focus on Muslim radicals who have stepped up attacks this year in a separatist insurgency in the volatile North Caucasus region, including Chechnya and neighboring Ingushetia and Dagestan.
If their involvement is confirmed, the attack on the Nevsky Express would mark a bold escalation by rebels the Kremlin and its main ally in the region, the Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, insist are on the run and all but defeated — and a potential return to the violence that terrorized Moscow and other Russian cities in the first half of the decade.
Though shootings and bombings are a daily occurrence in the North Caucasus, more than five years have passed since the militants last staged a deadly strike outside the region. The rebel leader, Doku Umarov, issued a video in April, however, declaring civilians legitimate targets and vowing a fresh wave of violence across Russia.
This week, a man identified by prosecutors as a follower of Umarov's, Mapsharip Khidriev, admitted in court that he played a role in a 2007 bombing that derailed the same train traveling the same route, according to local news reports. There were no fatalities, but about 30 people were injured in that attack.
"All search and investigative measures must be conducted intensely and most thoroughly," President Dmitry Medvedev told senior officials in a nationally televised emergency conference. "You need to act quickly so as to find as much evidence relating to the case as possible.... The results of the investigation must be reported to me personally."
The train was carrying nearly 700 passengers and railway employees to St. Petersburg when the explosion occurred at about 9:30 p.m., officials said.
A second, smaller blast caused by another bomb that partly exploded briefly disrupted rescue operations Saturday afternoon, but no one was hurt, said Vladimir Yakunin, the Russian Railways chief.
Initial reports on the death toll varied from 26 to 30, with several other victims said to be in critical condition.