Tourists ambushed at Caucasus ski resort

Masked gunmen ambushed a van of Moscow tourists headed to a ski resort at the foot of Mt Elbrus this weekend, killing three and injuring two others.

In addition to the ambush on Friday, a ski lift headed up Mt Elbrus, Europe’s highest peak and one of Russia’s top ski destinations, was blown up that day. Police also said they had discovered and defused three bombs packed in a car at a hotel parking lot.

If proved to be the work of Islamist rebels, the brazen attacks in Kabardino-Balkaria, one of the dozen republics that comprise Russia’s turbulent Caucasus region, mark a huge turning point in their growing insurgency.

The attacks make a farce of President Dmitry Medvedev’s $15 billion plan, unveiled at the World Economic Forum in Davos last month, to turn the Caucasus into a tourist paradise. The attacks also come just three years before Russia is due to host the Winter Olympics in nearby Sochi. Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin took to the slopes there (state TV in tow) on Friday – neither has yet to comment on Friday’s attacks.

By targeting tourists, the rebels – who first and foremost want Russia out of the Caucasus – are trying to make it harder and harder for Russia’s leaders to ignore the insurgency that has been ravaging the region for half a decade. Questions about security at the Olympics, with thousands of foreigners expected to attend, will only grow. The fact that a suicide bomber from the Caucasus decided to blow up the international arrivals hall at Domodedovo last month, killing eight foreigners, also points to a shift in strategy – until then, rebels had squarely kept their attacks focused on Russians alone.

Terrorism is a tactic, designed to provoke a response. After years of carrying out attacks throughout the Caucasus, the rebels have merely seen Russia’s leaders ignore them – the announcement of the tourist paradise plan may have been the last straw.