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90 Die as Militants Stage Series of Attacks in Russia

October 14, 2005|David Holley | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — Islamic militants staged coordinated attacks on police and government buildings in Russia's North Caucasus region Thursday in a new wave of violence spilling over from war-torn Chechnya that killed more than 90 people.

Authorities said at least 12 police officers, 12 civilians and more than 60 guerrillas died in the fighting in Nalchik, capital of the predominantly Muslim republic of Kabardino-Balkaria. Seven more guerrillas were reported killed in an outlying district and 17 were captured.

Gunmen who held hostages overnight in a Nalchik police station and in a souvenir shop were killed this morning, and the captives were freed, authorities said.

Russian President Vladimir V. Putin ordered Thursday that the uprising be crushed.

The fighting marked the continued spread through the region of violence that started in the 1990s with a bid for independence by Chechen separatists.

"People have been talking for a long time now about the metastasis of the Chechen conflict throughout the North Caucasus, and this is one of the manifestations," said Nikolai Silayev, a Caucasus analyst at the Moscow State Institute for International Relations. "The situation in the North Caucasus is clearly not quieting down."

In September 2004, militants seized a school in the town of Beslan, about 60 miles southeast of Nalchik, and more than 300 hostages, police officers and rebels died in explosions and a shootout.

Russian First Deputy Interior Minister Alexander Chekalin estimated the number of militants involved in the attacks at 100, but other officials said as many as 300 could be involved. Putin ordered cordon around the city of 235,000 to prevent militants from escaping during the night.

"The president gave an instruction that not one gunman should be allowed to leave the town, and those who are armed and putting up resistance must be wiped out," Chekalin said after meeting Putin.

Mohammed Samukov, an aide to Nalchik's mayor, said in a telephone interview that fighting in the city began about 9 a.m., with attacks on three police buildings, a state security office, an anti-organized crime unit and a border guard detachment. The gunmen also tried to seize the city's airport but failed, other authorities said.

"They've made some noise, caused some mayhem and now are going to be trying to get out," Samukov said. "They have not made any demands. For now, they are only speaking the language of weapons."

A doctor at City Hospital No. 2, who was willing to give only her first name, Galina, said that fighting had occurred near the hospital at midday. "A group of several people was firing at our police, and they were warding off the attackers," she said. "The din was really something. There were explosions, but the hospital wasn't damaged."

Arsen Kanokov, president of Kabardino-Balkaria, said Thursday evening that the situation was under control.

"There is absolutely no panic. The entire state infrastructure is working, and all of the city's exit routes have been sealed off," he said.

Chekalin said security forces were conducting systematic searches for remaining militants.

"It is very important for us now, first of all, to find the bandits, the rebels in town, including the wounded and those in hiding," he said in televised remarks.

"The task is not to let a single rebel slip through. And if a rebel is armed, shoot-to-kill orders are to be followed without hesitation."

Alexei Malashenko, a Caucasus expert at the Carnegie Moscow Center, linked the incident to the military and political struggle in Chechnya between pro-Moscow and separatist forces, and to broad tensions between authorities and Islamists in the North Caucasus region.

In recent years, he said, authorities in Kabardino-Balkaria have sought to repress the expression of Islam outside officially approved channels, and this appears to have produced a backlash.

"Relations between officials and believers deteriorated," Malashenko said.

The attacks appeared to be an effort by Islamic militants "to show everybody, including the Kremlin administration, that they are very strong and can do whatever they like, even in a big city like Nalchik," he said. "This was a kind of demonstration of their capacities. It is at the same time a certain revenge."

The attacks could also be a show of strength linked to a scheduled Nov. 27 parliamentary election in Chechnya, he said.

Authorities blamed the attack on a group called Yarmuk, which they said was linked to Islamic extremists and Chechen rebels led by Shamil Basayev and Abdul-Khalim Sadulayev.

Federal Deputy Prosecutor General Vladimir Kolesnikov told reporters in Nalchik that some of the captured militants had begun to talk. He said the attack was led by Islamic radicals Anzor Astemirov and Iless Gorchkhanov. They previously were identified as leaders of Yarmuk and are suspected of masterminding an attack on the Nalchik drug control office in December.

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