Sat, Feb 04, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Blasts rock game arcades in Russia

AFP , VLADIKAVKAZ, RUSSIA

Two people have been killed and 24 wounded in a series of blasts targeting slot machine arcades in Vladikavkaz in Russia's turbulent North Caucasus region amid a government crackdown on illegal gaming halls, officials said yesterday.

The explosions went off at 9pm on Thursday at intervals of just minutes in three gaming halls near the center of Vladikavkaz, the capital of North Ossetia in the mountainous North Caucasus region, which includes Chechnya and and other flashpoints.

An unexploded bomb was found in a fourth gaming hall and defused, police said.

The prosecutor's office opened a criminal inquiry for murder, terrorism and illegal possession of explosives and munitions, while police ordered the evacuation of all Vladikavkaz's gaming halls and casinos, an increasingly popular and profitable form of entertainment in Russia.

"There were two dead," Sergei Takoyev, head of administration for the provincial president, said.

Witnesses said that many of the injured were people who left their houses in reaction to a first blast, only to be struck by a second blast shortly afterwards in the next street.

The fatalities were a 25-year-old woman and a man whose age was not given, the RIA Novosti news agency reported, citing the authorities.

Government officials said that 15 people remained hospitalized early yesterday, three of them in serious condition, Interfax news agency reported. Most victims were aged between 20 and 30, but the wounded included a girl of 11 who was walking past as an explosion occurred, officials said.

The number of slot machines has risen sharply in North Ossetia following the closing last year of all such gaming in nearby Muslim Chechnya and police had been carrying out a major crackdown on unlicensed halls at the time of the attacks, North Ossetia's police chief Sergei Arenin said.

"We have shut down 136 of them in the last two days and our officers had 29 more to check," Arenin said.

North Ossetia's leader Taimuraz Mansurov held an emergency meeting of the government late on Thursday during which he called for shutting down all gaming halls.

The explosions "were all linked to places where you gamble," he said. "I will ask for the closing of all such establishments."

The mostly Muslim North Caucasus is increasingly unstable as guerrilla attacks spread from Chechnya into other provinces. The region is also notorious for corruption, arms trading and police and army brutality.

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