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Russian Forces Crush Rebels After Two Days of Fighting

All of the hostages in Kabardino-Balkaria are freed by troops. The death toll stands at 108, including 72 militants and 12 civilians.

October 15, 2005|David Holley | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — Russian authorities Friday successfully freed three sets of hostages held by militants in the predominantly Muslim republic of Kabardino-Balkaria, bringing a level of calm to Nalchik, the capital city where two days of fighting have resulted in more than 100 deaths.

Authorities said that in all three cases, the militants were killed and the hostages survived, although some were hurt, when security forces stormed buildings. At a souvenir shop where two women were being held hostage, knockout gas was used by authorities, Russian media reported. In that incident, an armored personnel carrier equipped with a battering ram was used to break into the building.

From President Vladimir V. Putin on down, Russian authorities talked and acted tough Friday about the rebel fighters who began their attacks Thursday in the North Caucasus republic.

In television broadcasts, Putin was seen conferring with top defense and security officials. He grimly declared that the authorities' unwavering response to the attacks in Nalchik would be a model for crushing any future rebel assaults.

"It is a major tragedy that we have losses among our comrades, among law enforcement personnel and among civilians," Putin said.

"What is good is that this time the actions of all the law enforcement and security agencies were well coordinated, effective, tough," he added. "And henceforth we will act in the same manner toward anyone who takes up arms and threatens the lives and well-being of our citizens or the integrity of the Russian state."

The official death toll in two days of fighting was 108: 72 militants, 24 law enforcement officers and 12 civilians.

The militants' attack on police and government buildings was widely seen as linked to conflict in nearby Chechnya. Violence has spread in the region since separatists in that Russian republic began a bid for independence in the 1990s.

In the orchestrated display of tough remarks by national officials, Defense Minister Sergei B. Ivanov was first shown on nationwide television reporting to Putin on how army units responded to the attacks, helping to cordon off the city to prevent guerrillas from entering or escaping.

"We were forced to bring in military helicopters," Ivanov said. "Yesterday afternoon in the Chegem Forest [near] Nalchik, helicopters that were surveying the area spotted a group of militants."

"Were they killed?" Putin asked grimly.

"In order not to subject servicemen's lives to additional risks, we used military helicopters to annihilate all seven of the militants who were there," Ivanov replied.

Internal Affairs Minister Rashid G. Nurgaliyev told Putin that a total of 2,200 police, soldiers and security personnel were involved in fighting the militants.

In Nalchik, Deputy Internal Affairs Minister Andrei Novikov told reporters that the alleged leader of the attack, Iless Gorchkhanov, had been killed.

Russian television broadcast footage of the storming of the souvenir shop, showing helmeted special forces donning gas masks just before entering with the help of the battering ram.

Russian authorities also used knockout gas following the 2002 takeover of a Moscow theater by Chechen militants. Almost all the 129 hostages who were killed in that incident died from the gas used by security forces and because they didn't receive immediate medical attention.

NTV broadcast an exchange between one of its reporters in Nalchik and a man identified as a relative of one of the two women held hostage in the souvenir shop. The reporter said that the woman "was poisoned by the gas used by the special forces, but her loved ones were told that her life was not in danger."

The relative explained that the woman had been hospitalized and was receiving an antidote to counteract the effects of the gas. "This colonel came and said, 'I know what this is and I know how to take care of it quickly,' " the man said.

NTV said that despite the deaths of 36 officers and civilians, "law enforcement and security officials are pleased with the results of the operation."

Last year, when a similar force of militants attacked police and security targets in three towns of the Russian republic of Ingushetia, Chechnya's neighbor to the west, about 90 people were killed in overnight fighting, two-thirds of whom were members of law enforcement agencies.

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