At Least 85 Die in Attacks Near Chechnya

By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, October 14, 2005

MOSCOW, Oct. 14 -- At least 85 people were killed in street fighting in the southern Russian city of Nalchik on Thursday morning after large groups of gunmen assaulted government buildings, telecommunications facilities and the airport. Chechen rebels asserted responsibility for the attacks.

Pitched battles across the city subsided by the early afternoon, but police continued to hunt for gunmen, officials said.

The city of 280,000 people is the capital of Kabardino-Balkaria, a small, autonomous republic that has become increasingly restive as violence spills across the region from nearby Chechnya, scene of a decade of war by Muslim rebels seeking independence.

"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," or Islamist Brigade, said a statement on Kavkazcenter, a Chechen rebel Web site.

The dead included 12 civilians and 12 members of the security forces, according to local officials and Russian news agencies. Deputy Interior Minister Andrei Novikov said late Thursday that 61 militants had been killed, the Associated Press reported. In addition, more than 100 people were wounded, according to local hospitals. Police said they captured 12 insurgents.

Estimates of the number of attackers ranged from 60 to 300. The uncertainty revealed a measure of the violence that descended on the city shortly after 9 a.m.

President Vladimir Putin ordered a complete blockade of Nalchik to prevent people involved in the attacks from escaping. "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 after a meeting with Putin.

The assault was one of the most intense in the region since an attack on multiple targets in another Russian republic, Ingushetia, in the summer of 2004. Ninety-two people were killed and police armories were looted.

The scale of Thursday's assault is likely to renew fears that a large swath of southern Russia is being destabilized by a toxic brew of Islamic radicalism, government repression, economic despair and endemic corruption. There are now almost daily reports of attacks on politicians, the military, police and security officials in the region.

Once a quiet republic that drew tourists to its excellent skiing, including slopes on Russia's highest mountain, Mount Elbrus, Kabardino-Balkaria has become increasingly unstable. On Wednesday, police said they had captured a large cache of explosives and weapons outside Nalchik and killed 10 radicals in a separate operation.

Putin's special envoy to the region warned in a leaked report this summer that the North Caucasus region, which includes Kabardino-Balkaria, risked becoming a "macro-region of sociopolitical and economic instability." Last month, Putin said that "the continuing activity of terrorist formations and other extremist groups is seriously destabilizing" the region.

Alexei Malashenko, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, said the attacks might have also resulted from divisions among Islamic radicals over the possibility of dialogue with the republic's new president, Arsen Kanokov, who was nominated by Putin and approved by the local parliament on Sept. 28.

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