Russian authorities say they have foiled a plot by Islamist radicals to bomb a chemical weapons facility and have arrested two suspects from the North Caucasus, where Moscow is battling a long-standing Islamist insurgency.
Militants have previously carried out deadly bombings in Moscow and other parts of Russia outside the mostly Muslim North Caucasus, but specific allegations of plots to attack sites holding weapons of mass destruction in nuclear-armed Russia have never before been reported.
Authorities believe the suspects planned to build a bomb and attack the Maradykovsky chemical weapons storage and disposal facility in the Kirov region, about 600 miles north-east of Moscow, the Federal Investigative Committee said.
“The suspects planned a terrorist attack that could have risked killing hundreds of people,” a statement said.
The men, it added, had travelled north to the remote Kirov area from Moscow to plan the attack and it identified them as followers of Wahhabism – the ultra-conservative branch of Sunni Islam practised in Saudi Arabia of which Osama bin Laden was a follower.
Investigators found bomb components and “literature with extremist content” in an abandoned house in the area where the suspects, aged 19 and 21, were living, the statement said.
It said the suspects were natives of the North Caucasus, a mountainous southern region not far from the Black Sea city of Sochi, where Russia is due to host the 2014 Winter Olympics next February.
The region is some 1,200 miles from Kirov.
Insurgent leader Doku Umarov, a Chechen, has urged fighters to use “maximum force” to stop the Olympics going ahead.
President Vladimir Putin has staked his reputation on the Games and ordered increased security in the North Caucasus, where the Islamist insurgency is rooted in two post-Soviet wars pitting Chechen separatists against the Kremlin.
After suicide bombings that killed dozens in the Moscow subway in 2010 and at a Moscow airport in 2011, Umarov called for more attacks on infrastructure in the Russian heartland, but no other major attacks have occurred outside the North Caucasus since.
Russia inherited the Soviet Union’s declared stockpile of 40,000 tonnes of chemical weapons.
In 1997 Moscow ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention, which requires signatories to declare and dispose of all chemical weapons and production facilities.
Russia and the US had pledged to destroy their chemical arsenals by 2012 but both missed the deadline. They have recently led diplomatic efforts to ensure Syria starts destroying its chemical weapons stockpile.
As of March 2013, Russian authorities had destroyed more than 90 per cent of the chemical weapons at the Maradykovsky facility and were disposing of the nerve agent soman, said the Kirov municipality’s website.