Investigators said the unidentified woman set off her charge after being stopped by a police officer at the metal detectors of the central entrance to the station when it was packed with people travelling to celebrate the New Year.
Footage captured by a nearby camera showed a huge orange fireball blow out the heavy front doors and windows from the grey stone three-storey building. Thick billows of smoke then poured out as people scattered along the rain-soaked street.
At least 16 people were killed in a suicide bombing at a train station in central Russia on Sunday, raising the spectre of a new wave of terrorism before the Winter Olympics in Sochi. More than two dozen were wounded, some of them critically, meaning the death toll could rise. Doctors and police said also nearly 45 injured by the explosive equivalent of more than 10kg of TNT.
The explosion, which officials said was caused by a bomb possibly carried in a bag or backpack, struck the main station in Volgograd, formerly known as Stalingrad, a city of 1 million about 880 kilometres south of Moscow, at 12.45pm. It blew out windows in the building’s facade and left a horrific scene of carnage at the main entrance.
The blast, captured on a surveillance video camera from across the central plaza in front of the station, occurred near the metal detectors that have become a common security fixture at most of Russia’s transportation hubs, suggesting that an attack deeper inside the station or aboard a train might have been averted.
The website identified the bomber as a woman named Oksana Aslanova who had been married to two different Islamists killed in battles with federal forces in the North Caucasus.
Female suicide bombers are often referred to in Russia as “black widows” — women who seek to avenge the deaths of their family members in the fighting by targeting Russian civilians.
She was reported as having been married to two Islamic militant leaders killed by Russian forces in the North Caucasus.
Vladimir Markin, a spokesman for the Investigative Committee, called the bombing an act of terrorism.
Within hours of the attack, the authorities blamed a suicide bomber, citing the gruesome discovery of a woman’s severed head.
“Most likely, the victims could have been much higher if the so-called protective system had not stopped the suicide bomber from getting through the metal detectors into the waiting room where there were passengers,” Mr Markin said in a statement on the committee’s website.
It was the second such attack in Volgograd in two months. In October a woman identified as Naida Asiyalova detonated a vest of explosives aboard a bus in the city, killing herself and six others.The October 21 strike killed people aboard a crowded bus and immediately raised security fears ahead of the February 7-23 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi.
In that case, the authorities linked her by marriage to an explosives expert working with an Islamic rebel group in Dagestan, the southern republic where the police have struggle to suppress an insurgency by Muslim separatists. A month later the authorities
The city of Volgograd – known as Stalingrad in the Soviet era – was already attacked in October by a female suicide bomber with links to Islamists in the nearby volatile North Caucasus.
announced that they had killed her husband and four others in a raid in the region.
The republics of the North Caucasus, including Dagestan, Chechnya and Adygea, have for nearly two decades been embroiled in complex, ever-shifting armed conflicts that the International Crisis Group recently called “the most violent in Europe today”.
The violence has left hundreds dead already this year and prompted the authorities to make extraordinary efforts to keep it from reaching Sochi, the Black Sea resort city that will be the host of the Winter Olympic Games six weeks from now.
Doku Umarov, the Chechen rebel fighter who now leads a terrorist group known as the Caucasus Emirate, vowed in July to target Sochi explicitly, calling the games “satanic”.
“They plan to hold the Olympics on the bones of our ancestors, on the bones of many, many dead Muslims, buried on the territory of our land on the Black Sea,” he said in a video statement.
Mr Umarov emerged from the ruins of Chechnya’s separatist movement, which the Russian government under President Vladimir Putin largely defeated.
Chechnya itself remains comparatively stable under Ramzan Kadyrov, a regional leader who has been embraced by the Kremlin and who has been accused of ruling through repression and abuse.
Mr Umarov’s group, which ostensibly aims to create an independent emirate that would unite Russia’s southern Muslim republics, claimed responsibility for ordering two separate suicide bombings on Moscow’s subway in 2010 and an attack at Domodedovo Airport in Moscow in 2011.
Mr Umarov himself is believed to operate in remote redoubts in the Caucasus, but his whereabouts and his influence over other Islamic militants in the region remain unclear.
The International Crisis Group’s recent report outlined a raft of issues that have contributed to Islamic radicalisation and violence in the Caucasus, including not only separatist aspirations but also social and economic issues and federal policies.
“Unresolved disputes over territory, administrative boundaries, land and resources are important root causes of the violence, along with ethnic and religious tensions, the state’s incapacity to ensure fair political representation, rule of law, governance and economic growth,” the organisation’s report said.
“The region’s internal fragmentation and insufficient integration with the rest of the Russian Federation contribute to the political and social alienation of its residents.”
It is not clear why suicide bombers have now twice targeted Volgograd.
It is the first major city north of the Caucasus, and its proximity to the region could be a factor in the attacks.
Both attacks also struck means of transportation – a bus and the train station – and both raised speculation that the bombers might have intended to travel further north, only to detonate their bombs early.
On Friday, an explosion in a car killed three people in another city in the Caucasus, Pyatigorsk, although details of that attack remain sketchy, and it was not clear whether it was in any way related to Sunday’s bombing.
Mr Putin ordered the authorities to provide assistance to the victims of Sunday’s bombing and their families and to tighten security at the country’s train stations and airports, all of which are busier than usual before the New Year’s holiday.
Russia in past years has seen a series of terror attacks on buses, trains and airplanes, some carried out by suicide bombers.
Twin bombings on the Moscow subway in March 2010 by female suicide bombers killed 40 people and wounded more than 120. In January 2011, a male suicide bomber struck Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport, killing 37 people and injuring more than 180.
Umarov, who had claimed responsibility for the 2010 and 2011 bombings, ordered a halt to attacks on civilian targets during the mass street protests against President Vladimir Putin in the winter of 2011-12. He reversed that order in July, urging his men to “do their utmost to derail” the Sochi Olympics which he described as “satanic dances on the bones of our ancestors.”
A group calling itself Anonymous Caucasus said in a statement Friday on the Caucasus rebel web site, kavkazcenter.com, that it would launch cyber-attacks to avenge Russia’s refusal to acknowledge the 19th-century expulsion of Chirkassians, one of the ethnic groups in the Caucasus.