October 14, 2005

Russia Continues Hunt for Rebels, Putting Death Toll at 96


NALCHIK, Russia, Oct. 14 - Russian officials said today that 72 insurgents and 24 law enforcement officers were killed during a bloody shootout that occurred after insurgents launched a series of coordinated attacks on police and security buildings. Roads to this city in southern Russia remained blocked today as authorities searched for additional insurgents, who may have ties to the breakaway movement in Chechnya. But authorities said the "active phase" of the protracted gun battle had ended, and that control of the town had been regained.

In addition to the dead, Andrei Novikov, Russia's deputy interior minister, said today that 31 insurgents were captured and that 54 law enforcement personnel had been wounded. Nine hostages taken by the insurgents had been freed. Mr. Novikov said he believed that no other hostages had been taken. The insurgents attacked at least nine police and security buildings on Thursday in coordinated daylight raids. One band of the masked gunmen overwhelmed a police station and captured hostages, including police officers, and held them into the night. Two gun shops were also sacked. During the violence, which continued into today, President Vladimir V. Putin told authorities to block the routes in and out of Nalchik, and ordered the destruction of any insurgents who resisted. A local radio station called on residents to stay in their homes.

"The president has ordered us to keep every militant within Nalchik and to eliminate any armed person resisting detention," First Deputy Interior Minister Aleksandr Chekalin said Thursday. "The order of the president will be fulfilled." Armored vehicles and a heavy presence of Russian troops set up checkpoints. The city, which was almost fully under the authorities' control by late afternoon, fell mostly quiet at night.

The attacks, in Russia's Caucasus region, took place in a city that had remained free until now of the worst violence that has stalked southwestern Russia since war began in nearby Chechnya in 1994, and cast fresh doubts on the Kremlin's insistence that the region has been stabilizing and returning to its control. Violence this year had already flared anew in Dagestan, where insurgents have been killing police officers and soldiers with near regularity, and last year guerrillas and terrorists conducted large operations in the nearby republics of Ingushetia and North Ossetia, where 331 people died in the school siege in Beslan.

A Web site that often carries messages from the Chechen terrorist Shamil Basayev, who planned the school siege in Beslan, said the attackers were Islamic fighters aligned with Chechen separatists. It said the attacking bands included local cells as well as fighters from elsewhere who had traveled to the republic for battle. The fresh attacks sent ripples through the region. The president of the Kremlin-installed government in Chechnya announced that his local forces had been put on alert, as did leaders in Ingushetia. Ramzan Kadyrov, the leader of an irregular force of former Chechen guerrillas that is at least publicly loyal to Moscow, offered to send his fighters to Nalchik's aid.

Nalchik itself, a city of about 275,000 and the capital of the internal Russian republic of Kabardino-Balkariya, was crowded with reinforcements, including special Russian Army units. Late Thursday night, convoys of trucks carrying soldiers and an armored personnel carrier were also visible on the roads north of the city, heading toward it. The attacks on Thursday were also reminiscent of a raid in June 2004 in nearby Ingushetia, when Mr. Basayev led hundreds of guerrillas in simultaneous attacks against police and security offices and barracks. Nearly 100 people were killed, and hundreds of weapons stolen before Mr. Basayev and his gunmen slipped away.

Kabardino-Balkariya, a small and principally Muslim republic with a stagnant economy and about 800,000 residents, has been destabilized in recent years by what the authorities describe as the growing presence of Islamic guerrillas and terrorists, who have had several smaller skirmishes with the authorities. Its long-serving president, whose recent management of the republic was criticized for corruption and a repressive police force, was replaced only two weeks ago by a Moscow businessman and Kremlin loyalist, Arsen Kanokov.

Mr. Kanokov, 48 and an ethnic Kabardin, arrived at a time when the insurgency had deepened. Late last year, an Islamic group, Yarmuk, was accused of seizing a drug police post, executing four officers, and then escaping with a cache of arms and munitions. Early this week, the police announced the discovery of a large bomb laboratory here. Marina Kyasova, spokeswoman for the republic's Interior Ministry, said Thursday's violence began when law enforcement officers raided an apartment in Belaya Rechka, an area on the outskirts of the city, at 3 a.m., trapping several suspected Islamic terrorists inside.

The men, who were suspected of being connected to the recently raided bomb laboratory, resisted fiercely, she said. And at 9 a.m., as the fight in Belaya Rechka continued, the police realized they were being attacked elsewhere throughout the city, she said. Insurgents attacked three police district buildings, she said, as well the headquarters of the Interior Ministry, the office of the special riot police, a police foot-patrol command, a counterterrorism center, an office of the corrections department, and a building used by the F.S.B., or Federal Security Service, one of Russia's successors to the K.G.B.

Two gun shops were also struck at the same time, in an effort by the insurgents to gather weapons. Liuan Gunzhafov, 26, a lawyer who lives above the Arsenal gun shop on Kirova Street, said he saw a car and a tractor carrying a total of seven masked men arrive at the store at 9 a.m. With several insurgents with Kalashnikov assault rifles standing guard, others tied ropes and cable to the shop's window bars, and used the tractor to tug the bars free of the window frame. After masked men climbed through the window to try stealing the store's contents, he said, two traffic police officers arrived. A gunfight ensued. One police officer was killed, he said, but not before three insurgents were also shot and the other four had fled. Blood was pooled in the parking lot, where two black ski masks had also been left behind.

The masked men, who spoke Russian, had seemed uninterested in the civilians who peered at them or drove past, Mr. Gunzhafov said. They simply warned people to stay clear. "I leaned over the balcony to watch and one wagged his finger at me," he said. At government buildings, however, the insurgents fought. The F.S.B. said it had turned back the assault on its building, although one officer was killed. Most of the other attacks were rebuffed as well, Ms. Kyasova said, but Police District No. 3 was overrun.

It was not clear how many insurgents had attacked; some officials said as many as 300. But Ms. Kyasova said the ministry estimated that 80 or 100 fighters had attacked. She said some were local men, but "there are also those who are from somewhere else." She declined to elaborate. She also said about half the insurgents wore civilian clothes, and the rest were in camouflage. Nikolai N. Zakharov, deputy spokesman for the F.S.B., said in a telephone interview on Thursday that it was too soon to know the number of attackers, or their precise affiliations. There were scattered reports that at least one school had been seized, but that was denied by the pro-Chechen Web site, www.kavkazcenter.com, and as well as by Dmitry Kozak, the Kremlin envoy in the region.

Similarly, the Interior Ministry said early reports that the airport had been attacked were incorrect; rather, two ministry officials said, airport security forces had assisted the police in a skirmish nearby. Sophia Kishkovsky and Andrew Kramer contributed reporting from Moscow for this article.

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