Two female suicide bombers hit the Moscow Metro system at the peak of rush hour Monday morning, killing 35 people. The first explosion took place at 7.56 at the central Lubyanka station, killing fourteen in the train and eleven on the platform. The second explosion occurred 40-minutes later at the Park Kultury station, killing a further twelve. Local authorities have labeled the bombings as a ‘terrorist incident’, and suspicions rest on separatists in the North Caucasus, though no group has claimed responsibility.
Russian forces have claimed a number of successes against militants in recent weeks, including an operation in Ingushetia that killed twenty. The attacks are not the first of their kind: an attack on the Moscow Metro killed 39 in February 2004 while a suicide bomber killed ten six months later. Chechen rebels were blamed for both attacks.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev is expected to address the nation later today.
openSecurity Verdict: The attacks today are a severe blow to the Russian government, who had declared victory in their war with Chechen separatists. While violence has subsided in Chechnya itself, the neighbouring regions of Dagestan and Ingushetia have borne witness to an increasing number of attacks. The geographic spread of violence to other provinces will make the Kremlin's response to the attacks harder to coordinate and direct.
The statement by rebel leader Doku Umarov in February foreshadowed such an event: "Blood will no longer be limited to our cities and towns. The war is coming to their cities." But with violence diminishing in Chechnya and the recent military successes against the insurgency, Russians would be excused for not anticipating such an attack. The danger now is that this shock will manifest in a bloody destabilising response by the Russian state in a region where the suppression of opposition groups has already had a high human life and human rights cost.
Russia will need to recognise that opposition in the North Caucasus is more than a stubborn separatism on the part of a Chechen extremist fringe. The problem is regional and will require a regional response. However, the Kremlin has already expended most of its option in combating the insurgency, from largescale military incursions, to targeted killings, to co-opting loyal Chechens to fight insurgents.
Should some group claim responsibility, the government will act decisively to maintain the aura of strong government. Should no one claim responsibility, they will be forced to dig for information and adopt a broader based strategy that might promise a greater delicasy and focus on hearts and minds. The tenuous balance the Kremlin found with Chechnya following the war in 2000 must not be challenged. Russia will need loyal Chechens on their side should they choose to launch a regional battle against the insurgency.
West Bank sealed off amid heightened US-Israeli tensions
Israel has announced a total closure of the West Bank over the Passover holiday, barring all Palestinians from entering Israel. Medical teams, certain reporters, and other select individuals will be allowed to enter the territory to provide necessary medical services and aid. Such closures are not uncommon for the West Bank during Jewish holidays but this instance is indicative of the increasing violence in the occupied territories and heightened tensions with the US.
The upheaval follows the recent Israeli announcement of settlement plans in the West Bank, widely condemned by the international community. Israel's announcement of plans to build an additional 1,600 homes in an existing settlement coincided with a visit by US Vice-President Joe Biden, who was in the region to promote ‘proximity talks’ between the Israelis and Palestinians. The announcement was said to embarrass Biden and his efforts to restart peace talks between the two nations, which stalled following Israeli incursion in Gaza last year. Increased violence in the weeks since the announcement has claimed the most lives in any period since the Gaza war. Clashes over the weekend that killed one Palestinian civilian and two Israeli troops.
Upon his return from a reportedly tense meeting at the White House last week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu downplayed the tensions with the US, saying "the relationship between Israel and the US is one between allies and friends, and it's a relationship based on years of tradition. Even if there are disagreements, these are disagreements between friends, and that's how they will stay." Netanyahu, while apologising for the timing of the announcement, has said Israel will continue with its housing plans.
President Obama makes surprise first-visit to Afghanistan
US President Barack Obama arrived in Afghanistan on Sunday evening in his first visit to the country since taking office. His itinerary has included talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and a visit to the Bagram Air Base, where he met with military officials and delivered a speech to US troops. Obama recently deployed an additional 30,000 troops in an effort to stabilise the country before a planned phased withdrawal in mid-2011.
The visit was both an attempt to send a “strong message” that the partnership between the countries would continue and to provide the president with an “on the ground” update of the situation. Obama and the recently re-elected Karzai have had an uneasy relationship throughout Obama’s term, including a major election dispute last year. Obama reportedly urged Karzai to ‘crackdown’ on corruption and drug trafficking while strengthening the judicial system. Karzai thanked Obama for American intervention and reaffirmed his, and the US', desire for Afghanistan to take responsibility for its own security in the near future.
Violence erupts as defeated Iraqi PM attempts to form coalition government
The secularist nationalist Iraqi List coalition, led by former-Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, has won Iraqi elections following a tight race with the current prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki. In the final results, published by Iraq’s Independent High Electoral Commission on Friday, Allawi’s Iraqiya party won 91 of the 325 Council of Representative seats, while al-Maliki’s State of Law party followed closely with 89 seats while the Iraqi National Alliance (INA) came third with 70.
Allawi now has 30 days to form a government. On Saturday, Allawi appointed a Sunni member of his alliance as deputy prime minister, who has since begun negotiations with other parties. Allawi has spoken of his intent to include all parties in the negotiations, including al-Maliki’s party. Al-Maliki however has refused to accept the elections and is reportedly negotiating an alliance with the INA in an effort to form the largest bloc in parliament. Should this succeed, a constitutional clause that refers to the “largest Council of Representatives bloc” could allow the alliance to form a coalition government before Allawi.
In the aftermath of the elections, two bombs exploded in Baghdad on Friday evening, hours after the elections results were announced. Since, the death toll has risen to 42, with a further 68 reportedly injured. On Sunday, a series of bombs exploded near the house of a Sunni candidate, killing five and injuring 26. The attacks have raised fears of a return to the levels of violence that characterised the time following Iraq's 2005 election, which saw some of the bloodiest attacks in the country's post-invasion history.
Thai protestors meet with PM as tensions escalate
Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva met with leaders of the anti-government protest movement in his first attempt to quiet ongoing unrest. Three hours of televised talks took place on Sunday in an effort to diffuse tensions and avert confrontation. The protestors, known as ‘red shirts’, are supporters of the former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 military coup. The red shirts are calling for new democratic elections and the dissolution of Abhisit’s government within two weeks. Abhisit has rejected the ultimatum but has indicated his willingness to continue talks with protest leaders.
The protestors have amassed in eight locations across the city, with the government extending special security legislation and calling in additional troops to man checkpoints. A series of non-fatal grenade attacks and a gun attack on a local bank shook Bangkok over the weekend, leaving the citizens on edge and fearful of further unrest. The violence marks a distinct shift from the peaceful protests of recent weeks, which have included the symbolic use of protestors’ blood and hair. Thaksin has called for a campaign of ‘civil disobedience’ from his undisclosed location abroad, acting as both leader and financier to the protests.