Russian city is torn by attacks

Gunbattles break out

militants take hostages

October 14, 2005|By ERIKA NIEDOWSKI | ERIKA NIEDOWSKI,SUN FOREIGN REPORTER

MOSCOW -- In a wave of bold daytime attacks yesterday in the southern Russian city of Nalchik, scores of militants fired on government buildings and the airport, leaving dozens of people dead in pitched battles during this year's most serious outbreak of violence in the volatile Caucasus.

With intermittent fighting and a standoff involving hostages continuing into this morning, at least 12 police and 12 civilians were reported killed in gunbattles, along with 61 insurgents.

Russian television and news agencies reported that the fighting began early yesterday on the outskirts of the city, about 1,200 miles south of Moscow in the autonomous republic of Kabardino-Balkaria, near Chechnya. In the initial skirmish, police said, three of 10 attackers were killed.

A spokeswoman for the Interior Ministry there said that another group of gunmen stormed the Interior Ministry headquarters building in central Nalchik and attempted to seize arms and ammunition from a weapons depot. Militants simultaneously attacked the regional headquarters of the Federal Security Service, as well as three police stations and the federal prison department.

By midafternoon, the insurgents had overrun one of the police stations and were holding hostages there. It was not clear whether the hostages were law enforcement officers or civilians.

Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, who remained in Moscow, ordered authorities to seal off the city of 275,000 people.

"The president has ordered us to keep every militant within Nalchik and to eliminate any armed person resisting detention," First Deputy Interior Minister Alexander Chekalin said. "The order of the president will be fulfilled."

A Chechen rebel Web site, Kavkazcenter.com, said it received a message from Chechens claiming responsibility for the attacks. "Forces of the Caucasus Front - a unit of the Chechen Republic's Armed Forces - went into the town, including attack brigades from the Kabardino-Balkarian Yarmuk [Islamist brigade]," the Web site said. The Islamic group Yarmuk is based in Kabardino-Balkaria.

There were conflicting reports throughout the day about the number of casualties. The chief physician at the city's main hospital initially reported that 15 civilians had been killed. Last night, authorities said 116 people had been treated at local hospitals.

"This is a war against Russia, against our country," Mikhail Margelov, a prominent member of Russia's upper house of parliament, said on RTR television.

Col. Gen. Yuri Baluyevsky, chief of Russia's General Staff, told reporters in Moscow there was no evidence that Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev, Russia's most wanted man, was in Nalcik.

Basayev has claimed responsibility for last year's attack on a school in Beslan, in the neighboring republic of North Ossetia, where 331 people, many of them children, died. Russian media have quoted him as saying that the Yarmuk movement was too "passive" in its militancy.

The outbreak of violence in Nalchik underscores a simmering crisis in the restive North Caucasus region, in part a product of the stalemate between Chechen separatists and the Russian government. For 10 years, the two sides have been locked in a bitter struggle that has left thousands dead and the Chechen capital, Grozny, in ruins.

Once confined to Chechnya, the fighting has spread into the surrounding republics of the Caucasus, where civilian disappearances, explosions and shootouts between rebels and security forces have become almost routine. Human rights activists have documented the torture of suspected militants at the hands of police and soldiers, as well as trials based on fabricated charges.

The republic of Kabardino-Balkaria, suffering from high rates of crime, drug use and unemployment, has seen its share of violence. In December 2004, the head of the penitentiary department was wounded and his son shot dead by unknown assailants. The Yarmuk group claimed responsibility for an attack on a federal drug control agency in Nalchik, in which rebels seized large amounts of weapons and killed four agency employees.

In January, seven militants, including Yarmuk's leader, were killed by Russian security forces after a two-day stand-off in which militants barricaded themselves inside two apartment buildings on the outskirts of Nalchik. In May, Kabardino-Balkaria's regional parliament appealed to Russia to intensify the fight against insurgents.

The Kremlin issued no official statement yesterday.

Estimates of the number of insurgents in Nalchik ranged from 80 to more than 200. Initial reports that the militants had taken over a school prompted widespread panic, until officials announced that all the city's schoolchildren were accounted for.

Businesses and the public transportation system closed, and authorities canceled all commercial flights to and from the airport. In a radio broadcast, authorities asked residents not to leave their homes.

Last night, the republic's president, Arsen Kanokov, said Nalchik was stable although some militants remained at large. "The situation in the republic is fully under control," he said, "and we have enough forces to neutralize the remaining militants."

Kanokov said five or six militants were holding five people hostage at police station Number Three. Other rebels were said to have barricaded themselves inside a souvenir store across from the Federal Security Service building.

Speaking on RTR television last night, a man said he had talked by telephone with his daughter, who was being held inside along with two other women.

"Dad, don't worry, everything is OK," he said she told him. "Don't worry for me."

baltimoresun@co.ru

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