Global Jihad continues as Chechen terrorist turn Caucasus capitol into a war zone
Group behind Beslan school massacre stages attacks on police stations ministries and airport
Chechen Rebels Claim Credit for Attacks
AP Photo MOSB826
By FATIMA TLISOVA
Associated Press Writer
NALCHIK, Russia (AP) - Militants attacked police and government buildings in Russia's volatile Caucasus region Thursday, taking hostages and turning a provincial capital into a war zone wracked by gunfire and explosions that left at least 85 people dead, mostly insurgents.
Chechen rebels claimed responsibility for the offensive in Nalchik, the capital of the mostly Muslim republic of Kabardino-Balkariya, as a new front opened in the Kremlin's decade-old battle against Islamic insurgents.
The rebels' struggle against Russia, originally a separatist movement, increasingly has melded with Islamic extremism in the past decade and fanned out beyond Chechnya's borders to encompass the entire Caucusus region.
The insurgent strategy of simultaneous attacks on facilities in Nalchik, a city of 235,000, was similar to a rebel siege last year in another Caucasus republic, Ingushetia, in what appears to be an attempt to target areas outside Chechnya and keep Moscow off-balance.
Kabardino-Balkariya is the fifth of seven republics in the mountainous region to be hit by the spillover of violence from the struggle in Chechnya. The insurgents are trying to exploit tensions among a variety of ethnic groups in the impoverished region as well as native Muslims and the ethnic Russians, who are Christian.
President Vladimir Putin, beleaguered by attacks that have killed hundreds of civilians and underscored his failure to bring the southern area under control, ordered a total blockade of Nalchik to prevent militants from slipping out. He told security forces to shoot any armed resisters.
Thursday's fighting began about 8:30 a.m. Thursday after police launched an operation to capture about 10 militants in a Nalchik suburb. All 10 suspected militants were killed, Russian Deputy Interior Minister Alexander Chekalin said.
Gunmen staged simultaneous attacks against three police stations, the city's airport and the regional headquarters of the Interior Ministry and Federal Security Service in what appeared what appeared to be an effort to divert police.
The attack at the airport was repelled, the facility was placed under military control and all flights were canceled, news reports said.
The militants also attacked the regional headquarters of the Russian prison system, the Emergency Situation Ministry's press office said. Interfax said a border guards' office also came under attack.
A teacher from School No. 5, who gave only his first name, Spartak, said children had been evacuated from the building, near a police station and an anti-terrorism office at the center of the attacks. Black smoke billowed from the building as panic-stricken parents searched for their children in the school yard.
Cars were overturned or gutted by gunfire, and Russian television footage showed the bloodied bodies of what appeared to be attackers in the streets.
The heavy fighting quieted down after about six hours, though sporadic gunfire continued and officials said militants were holding several hostages at a police station - and released captives said others were being held at a building housing a souvenir shop.
Deputy Interior Minister Andrei Novikov said late Thursday that 61 militants were killed, some from Kabardino-Balkariya and some from other republics in the Russian Caucasus. Russian and regional officials said 12 civilians and 12 police officers were killed.
Russian news agencies, citing figures from Russia's Center for Catastrophic Medicine, reported that 13 people were killed and 116 others were hospitalized, but it was unclear whether those figures referred only to civilians.
Estimates of the number of militants involved ranged from 60 to 300, and the Interfax news agency quoted an aide to the president of Kabardino-Balkariya as saying late Thursday that 17 had been detained.
The region has suffered a growing wave of violence as Islamic extremism is spreading despite the government's harsh anti-terrorist methods, from targeted killings of rebel leaders such as Aslan Maskhadov to paying rewards for information to the demolition of houses where suspected rebels have found refuge.
Police and security forces have fought pitched battles with militants across the region, and the rebels have employed terrorist methods including suicide bombings and the seizure of more than 1,000 hostages last year in a school in the town of Beslan, 60 miles southeast of Nalchik.
The Kavkaz-Center Web site, seen as a voice for rebels loyal to Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev, said it had received a short message claiming responsibility for Thursday's attack on behalf of the Caucasus Front. It said the group is part of the Chechen rebel armed forces and includes Yarmuk, an alleged militant Islamic group based in Kabardino-Balkariya.
Deputy Prosecutor General Vladimir Kolesnikov said suspects detained during Thursday's fighting said the offensive was carried out under orders from two wanted militants - including an active supporter of Basayev.
But armed forces chief of staff Gen. Yuri Baluyevsky said he had no evidence Basayev was involved in the attack. Russian officials also said no evidence supported speculation Basayev had been killed.
As darkness fell, Chekalin said militants holed up in two offices at a police station were holding hostages and battling security forces. Regional President Arsen Kanokov said five or six militants held five hostages at the police station, Interfax reported. Shots rang out late into the night while armored personnel carriers drew close to the station.
At a building housing a souvenir shop, wounded militants released three hostages in exchange for water, but one of those freed said the attackers were still holding three captives.
Rebels take fight to new front in Russia
Dozens of Islamist militants launched a coordinated wave of attacks on the spa town of Nalchik in southern Russia yesterday, triggering gun battles in which up to 60 people died, bringing unrest to a previously peaceful area of the north Caucasus. Police buildings, the telephone network, the airport and the security services building were among eight targets attacked by militants in a day of violence that began at 9am. Residents cowered at home as police cordoned off gun battles that intensified throughout the day.
Last night, the situation settled into two standoffs. Seven militants, two of whom were wounded, barricaded themselves in at a police station, taking with them some civilian hostages. Two other militants had also taken hostages in a shop opposite the headquarters of the security services, the FSB. An FSB spokesman said the militants only had "one or two" hostages. "The town is blocked off, naturally, to prevent them escaping dressed as civilians," he said.
The attack is the most daring so far by Islamic separatist militants in Kabardino-Balkaria, a Muslim republic in the north Caucasus. It will raise fears that the militancy once confined to Chechnya has spread across the region. It comes just over a month before the Kremlin holds parliamentary elections in Chechnya in a bid to tighten its grip on the government.
Yesterday, President Vladimir Putin ordered the city, which has a population of 235,000, to be sealed off and dispatched his envoy to the region, Dmitri Kozak, to Nalchik. A shoot-to-kill policy was introduced.
Alexander Chekalin, first deputy interior minister, told the Russian news agency Interfax that at least 50 militants had been killed and claimed that the remaining hostage-takers would be defeated "within the hour".
Contradictory information circulated all day, partly because the mobile and landline network had reportedly been hit in the attacks. Fyodor Shcherbakov, a spokesman for Mr Kozak, told the Guardian that 20 militants had been killed and 19 arrested. He denied reports that the militants were 300-strong. "There were dozens of them, all from different parts of the north Caucasus," he said, adding they were apparently residents of the republic. He said 12 police had died and 12 civilians, but that the toll was rising.
Arsen Bulatov, a local journalist, said last night that the bodies of the militants were still lying where they had died, waiting for forensic investigators. "Everyone is at home behind closed doors," he added.
Russia's NTV television broadcast pictures of wrecked cars. A plume of black smoke from burning buildings rose above the city centre. Despite officials insisting the fighting was over, gunfire could be heard throughout the day.
A local journalist told the RIA Novosti news agency the militants had hidden their weapons under civilian clothes and mingled with crowds.
The FSB spokesman said the militants had probably divided into groups. The city's police, military commissar, and a hunting shop called Arsenal were among the first targets. Russian troops held off attackers at the airport.
Kavkaz.org, a Chechen militant website, said it had been emailed by Chechen separatists called the Caucasus Front who claimed responsibility for the operation alongside a local jamaat - militant Islamic council - called Yarmuk.
Prosecutors said a close aide of Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev had planned the attack. Basayev claimed responsibility for last year's massacre in Beslan, 60 miles from Nalchik.