A suicide bomber badly wounded a provincial president in Russia's North Caucasus on Monday, an assassination attempt that undermined the Kremlin's claim that it has brought stability to the predominantly Muslim region.
Yunus Bek Yevkurov was the third top official to be wounded or killed in the last three weeks in the area of southern Russia around Chechnya, which was devastated by two separatist wars in the last 15 years.
No one immediately claimed responsibility for the bombing in Ingushetia province, where Yevkurov has tried to halt violence by Islamic militants.
A car rigged with TNT exploded as the presidential convoy traveled outside the provincial center, Nazran. The blast tore Yevkurov's armored sedan to pieces and killed two of his bodyguards.
Yevkurov spokesman Kaloi Akhilgov said the president suffered a serious concussion and broken ribs, but that his life was not in danger. Hospital and emergency officials, however, said Yevkurov was in critical condition with burns, brain injuries and damage to internal organs.
Yevkurov's burnt-out car stood in the grass off the roadside, its windows shattered, its wheels missing and most of its front end destroyed. Shrapnel was scattered for hundreds of meters (yards)
and there was blood on the ground in several places. Two roadside
houses had their roofs damaged and their windows shattered.
Russia's chief prosecutor said Yevkurov was most likely targeted by militants or local criminal clans angry about his crackdown on corruption.
Rebels have felt increasingly cornered under Yevkurov, a former military intelligence officer who was named president in October as the Kremlin sought to bring a measure of stability to Ingushetia. The province had been plunged into violence under the previous leader, former KGB officer Murat Zyazikov.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev called for "direct and ruthless" action against the perpetrators of the attack.
Alexei Malashenko, a North Caucasus expert at the Carnegie Moscow Center, said the attack demonstrated the federal government's inability to stem the spread of Islamic militancy in the region. "The Kremlin can't control anything in the Caucasus," he said.
Malashenko said that while Yevkurov made enemies among corrupt officials in the region, the attack was most likely triggered by his actions against Islamic militants, who have moved easily between Chechnya and Ingushetia. The attack came exactly five years after Chechen militants raided law enforcement offices in Nazran on June 22, 2004 - a coincidence that appeared to signal rebel involvement.
Last month, Yevkurov pooled efforts with Chechnya's Kremlin-backed President Ramzan Kadyrov to conduct a security sweep along the forested border between the two provinces.
"The attempt to kill Yevkurov was a response to the joint operation by Chechen and Ingush police," said Yulia Latynina, a political commentator who writes extensively about the North Caucasus. "Yevkurov has been very efficient on the job, and he angered the militants."
While going after rebel leaders, the Ingush president also sought to negotiate pardons for some rebels who would agree to put down their weapons, as Kadyrov did in Chechnya.
Yevkurov had also moved quickly to end abuses against civilians by security forces - actions that contrasted sharply with the repressive rule of his predecessor and quickly made him popular in the region.
He flew economy class and until recently had refused to use an armored vehicle, Latynina said.
"Yevkurov was absolutely fearless," she said. "He was a model officer."
Ingushetia, one of Russia's poorest regions, saw its scare resources drained by an influx of refugees from Chechnya. While Chechnya has become relatively more stable under Kadyrov, Ingushetia and other neighboring provinces have been increasingly plagued by violence.
On June 10, gunmen killed a deputy chief justice of Ingushetia's Supreme Court opposite a kindergarten in Nazran as she dropped off her children. Three days later, the region's former deputy prime minister was gunned down as he stood outside his home in Nazran.
On June 5, the top law enforcement officer of another North Caucasus region, Dagestan, was killed by a sniper as he stood outside a restaurant where a wedding was taking place.
Copyright 2014 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.