Russian security forces free 18 hostages, kill militants

Fighting in Caucasus city quelled

spread of violence likely to go on


MOSCOW -- Security forces freed all of the hostages held by Chechen rebels in the southern Russian city of Nalchik yesterday, a day after a series of coordinated attacks there left at least 108 people dead and renewed questions about government responses to the spreading violence in the Caucasus.

Russian forces were said to have used an armored personnel carrier and grenades to recapture a police station, souvenir shop and federal prisons building where 18 hostages had been held since Thursday. All of the hostage-takers were killed in separate operations and the hostages released; officials said yesterday for the first time that children were among those held.

The attack Thursday by militants claiming to be part of the Islamic group Yarmuk targeted the city's airport, three police stations and regional headquarters of the main security services. Twenty-four law enforcement officers and 12 civilians reportedly died in the fighting.

By last night, the fighting seemed to be over, and Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, making his first public comments on the attacks, praised the efforts of law enforcement officers, who were said to have killed as many as 91 militants.

But the Kremlin could hardly take much satisfaction from events in Nalchik, 1,200 miles south of Moscow.

What began 10 years ago as a bitter war between Chechen rebels and Russian forces has spread well beyond the borders of Chechnya, engulfing much of the Caucasus region. What was once a battle solely over Chechen independence has become increasingly entangled with Islamic militancy.

The rise of religious extremism in Russia's restive south has its roots in problems without easy fixes: poverty, corruption, unemployment and disaffection for the policies of a heavy-handed Russian government.

"The war, the unrest and the activities of Islamic militants are spreading over the North Caucasus region, which is an important indication that the Kremlin policy in the region is failing," said Yevgeny Kiselyov, an independent political analyst and ex-director of NTV television.

"I have a feeling that the Kremlin will try to play down the importance of the whole thing, saying, `Well, what's the big deal? The terrorists are captured or destroyed, the situation is again under control,'" Kiselyov said. But the Caucasus remains "a kind of melting pot under tremendous pressure that may explode from within."

A city of 275,000 people, Nalchik is the capital of the autonomous republic of Kabardino-Balkaria, where violence has been on the rise. Russian forces in Nalchik killed seven militants, including the head of the Yarmuk group, in January. A month earlier, militants of the same group had raided a federal drug control agency office in the city, stealing weapons and killing four people.

In a published commentary last spring, Igor Tsagoyev, a journalist in Nalchik, noted that religious radicals in Kabardino-Balkaria were attracting an increasing number of followers - and not only among the young and uneducated.

Militants were fueling ethnic tensions between Russians and non-Russians and exploiting the instability that such tensions bring, he wrote.

"When the proponents of `pure Islam' reach a critical mass, what will happen in Kabardino-Balkaria?" Tsagoyev said. "Despite what some may say, there will not be any social explosion.

"Instead, people will simply realize one fine day that the religious radicals have finally come to power. They will be able to rightfully claim that they speak for the republic's people."

In a poll of students at two universities in Kabardino-Balkaria this year, 91 percent said they believed that "people of other nationalities are a source of destabilization in the republic."

In an interview yesterday, Sergei A. Markov, director of the Moscow-based Institute for Political Studies, said that the Kremlin had lost control of the situation in the North Caucasus because it had focused too much attention on Chechnya.

"It's clear what happened: We're seeing the formation of the North Caucasian Hamas," he said, referring to the militant Palestinian organization.

"It's impossible to make reforms only in the North Caucasus. The North Caucasus has the same problems as the whole of Russia."

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