MOSCOW — The bodies of six slain men were found in four cars in the Stavropol region of southern Russia, officials said Thursday, triggering an anti-terrorism alert and raising fresh security concerns in the run-up to the Winter Olympics in Sochi.
In two of the cases, booby traps were discovered near the vehicles, the officials said. One device exploded as police approached, but no one was injured.
The first body was discovered Wednesday in the village of Tambukan, about 200 miles east of Sochi, host city of the Olympics next month. The Stavropol region borders the volatile North Caucasus, where Islamic separatists have long battled the Russian government.
The body of the local man, who had been shot in the head, was found in a parked car. When police approached, an explosive went off about 20 yards away, said a report posted on the Russian Investigative Committee’s web site. No one was injured.
Within the next few hours, two more bodies were found in the village of Zolskaya, in a neighboring district. One was in the back seat of a car, the other in the trunk of a car parked nearby. Both victims had been shot.
Three more bodies were discovered later in a car in the village of Maryinskaya. Police discovered an explosive device in a bucket nearby and it was disarmed by experts, the federal report said.
“In the near future, (the four cases) will be united in one investigation,” Vladimir Markin, spokesman for the Russian Investigative Committee, said in a statement Thursday. “Currently investigators are working on several versions of the events trying to establish the motives behind the murders.”
The investigating team includes officers with the Federal Security Service and Interior Ministry, Markin said.
An anti-terrorist operation, with special troops in combat vehicles patrolling towns, was launched Thursday in two districts of Stavropol, Vladimir Vladimirov, acting governor of the region, said in televised remarks.
Police were looking for three residents of the North Caucasus republic of Kabardino-Balkaria as possible suspects, a law enforcement source told the Interfax news organization.
The slayings followed two attacks in the southern Russian city of Volgograd, where suicide bombers attacked a railway station Dec. 29 and a crowded trolley bus the following day. No one has claimed responsibility for the bombings, which killed 34 people and injured dozens.
President Vladimir Putin visited Volgograd on New Year’s Day, meeting with victims of the attacks in hospitals. He then traveled to Sochi to inspect the Olympic venues.
Some analysts suspect the attacks in Volgograd and the Stavropol region are connected to a pledge made in June by North Caucasus Islamist resistance leader Doku Umarov, who vowed to disrupt the Olympics.
“They plan to hold the Olympics on the bones of our ancestors, on the bones of many, many dead Muslims buried on our land by the Black Sea,” Umarov, dressed in fatigues, said in a video statement. He said his fighters would use “maximum force” to prevent the Games.
“It is quite possible that the Islamist militants used these pinpoint attacks in the Stavropol region as a decoy, the method they resorted to many times in the past,” Andrei Soldatov, a security analyst and editor of Agentura.ru, an online investigative publication, said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. “They exploded a car in front of a McDonald’s restaurant in Moscow (in 2002) on the eve of capturing the (Dubrovka Theater), and a female bomber exploded herself in a Moscow underground on the eve of Beslan,” when militants seized a school in the town in 2004. More than 400 people, mostly children, died in those two attacks.
“Sochi Olympic Games present a unique possibility for ambitious young terrorists to make their names public,” Soldatov said. “I have grave concerns that they will do their best to use this chance.”