A spokesman for the hospital initially told the Interfax news agency, ”About 6:58 pm Moscow time, a [heavy truck] loaded with explosives rammed through the gate of the hospital and exploded near the hospital’s management building. At least 20 people were killed, according to preliminary information.”
The death toll, while still not final, was later raised to at least 33 dead.
The military hospital is located in the North Ossetia town of Mozdok, considered the headquarters for Russian forces combating separatist fighters in neighboring Chechnya.
Reuters reported late Friday that Interfax quoted a state official as saying the total would likely climbed to at least 35 and that some 150 people were in the hospital at the time of the blast, including some 100 patients.
“Judging by the scale of the destruction and the number of people in the hospital — 150 people, including 100 patients and 50 staff — the number of victims is likely to rise,” Sergei Fridinsky, deputy prosecutor general, told Interfax.
The bombing completely demolished the four-story hospital and fires resulting from the blast further complicated rescue operations.
“[T]he building is burning and it is impossible to approach it. All four stories have collapsed,” a spokesman for the local branch of Russia’s Emergencies Ministry told Reuters.
Earlier, regional Emergency Situations Minister Boris Dzgoyev told the Associated Press that some 115 people were inside the military hospital at the time of the bombing.
News agencies differed throughout the day on the specifics of the blast as further details emerged from the scene. There were no immediate claims of responsibility for the bombing.
Russian President Vladimir Putin was immediately informed about the hospital attack and dispatched an Emergency Ministry plane with additional rescuers and medical equipment, the presidential press service told the Itar-Tass news service.
Putin also sent Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov to the scene.
Friday’s blast is the latest in a series of violent clashes and suicide bombings linked to separatist rebels who have fought Moscow’s rule of Chechnya for more than 10 years.
On Wednesday, a bomb struck a Russian military convoy in Ingushetia, another republic that borders Chechnya. Five soldiers were killed in the attack.
The bombing in Ingushetia, which has absorbed thousands of Chechen refugees, occurred on the heels of a decision in Moscow to transfer authority in Chechnya from the domestic security service, known as the FSB, to the police.
“The situation is now completely different. There are no more large illegal armed units, just small groups,” Nikolai Patrushev, head of the FSB domestic security service, told First Channel television after a ceremony marking the transfer, according to Reuters.
“We are therefore moving away from the notion of a ‘counter-terrorist operation’ to that of ‘upholding public order’,” Patrushev said.
Meanwhile, the Russian military reported on Thursday that its forces had killed 25 separatist rebels over the previous 24 hours in a string of search operations in southern Russia.
Some 10 Russian servicemen were killed in the same time frame during clashes with the separatist fighters and from mine explosions, a Moscow official told the Associated Press on condition of anonymity.