Chechen rebels claimed responsibility Wednesday for blowing up a high-speed Russian train last week, an attack that killed 26 people, injured scores of others and raised fears of a fresh wave of terror attacks.
The Chechen claim, posted on a Web site sympathetic to the militants, could buttress the suspicions of Russian investigators, who have been tracing the attack to Islamist separatists in Russia's volatile North Caucasus region.
The separatist statement, issued on behalf of Chechen separatist leader Doku Umarov, claimed Friday's bombing of a Moscow-St. Petersburg express train was carried out on his orders.
"We declare that this operation was prepared and carried out ... pursuant to the order of the Emir of Caucasus Emirate," or Umarov, it said.
Umarov is thought to head a network of separatist cells across the mainly Muslim North Caucasus region that are fighting to break free from Moscow's rule. The rebels are blamed for regular attacks on law enforcement officials in the area's five autonomous republics since the end of two bloody separatist wars in Chechnya.
Russian authorities have said the train's derailment was an act of terrorism and traces of explosives and a crater were found at the disaster site. Government officials were among those killed in the train bombing.
The bombing was the first deadly terrorist attack outside the North Caucasus since the bombings of two airliners and a Moscow subway station attack in 2004.
The attack has struck a nerve in Russian society. About 1,500 people gathered for a state-sanctioned anti-terrorism rally in St. Petersburg on Wednesday.
Participants in the protest, organized by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's party United Russia, held banners, with slogans including "Terrorists are not People and "Find and Annihilate."
Rights activists charge that devastating militant attacks in the Caucasus _ such as August's bombing of a police station in the capital of Ingushetia, which claimed more than 20 lives _ are the bitter fruit of a brutal counterterrorism campaign by Russian authorities. The past year has seen a surge in suicide bombings and assassinations.
"The scariest thing is that this might not be an isolated attack," said political analyst Yulia Latynina. "It could be the start of a series."
Rights activists say government security services in the Caucasus have increased the use of kidnappings, killings and home-burnings of suspected militants and their relatives. The Moscow-based rights group Memorial issued a report this month accusing authorities of implementing "a policy of state terror."
The government has denied wrongdoing, blaming the separatists for trying to turn locals against Moscow.
There has been no official accusation of the southern separatists, but the country's top investigator, Alexander Bastrykin, said in comments published Wednesday in the state newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta that the attack bore their hallmarks. Police released a computerized sketch of a suspect Monday.
Bastrykin's office said he had been injured Saturday when a second blast struck the scene of the bombing as sappers and rescue workers were sifting through the wreckage. Russian news agencies said the injury was not serious.
Leonid Belyayev, head of the Russian Emergency Situations Ministry's St. Petersburg branch, was quoted by Russian news wires as saying Wednesday that terrorists could have been targeting two trains at once. The blast, he said, was timed to strike when a second train was passing in the opposite direction.
Belyayev said the double disaster was avoided because the Nevsky Express was running a minute late.
No arrests have been made in connection with the attack on the luxury train, which occurred 250 miles (400 kilometers) northwest of Moscow and 150 miles (250 kilometers) southeast of St. Petersburg. It was the second attack in two years on the line, which is popular with civil servants and Russian businessmen. A blast in 2007 injured dozens but killed no one. Two arrests were made in the 2007 attack but the main suspect, former military officer Pavel Kosolapov, remains a fugitive.
Associated Press writer Irina Titova contributed from St. Petersburg.