Crackdown Provoked Shootout In Russia

Russian forces combed through Nalchik, searching for alleged Islamic militants after clashes that killed 108 people.
Russian forces combed through Nalchik, searching for alleged Islamic militants after clashes that killed 108 people. (Associated Press)
By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, October 15, 2005

MOSCOW, Oct. 14 -- The battle that bloodied the city of Nalchik starting Thursday morning, causing more than 100 deaths, came straight out of the deadly playbook of Chechen rebels whose leaders have sworn to engulf the entire Caucasus region of southern Russia in conflict.

But it also sprang from the failures of a corrupt local leadership, whose campaign against Islamic extremism in the Russian republic of Kabardino-Balkaria alienated and often radicalized religious Muslims, according to human rights groups and experts on the region.

Many of the 103 fighters reported killed or captured Thursday and early Friday in Nalchik were local men, officials said, not natives of nearby Chechnya.

While a decade of separatist warfare there remains a galvanizing cause for young Muslim men across the region, they are just as often pushed toward violence by what they witness in their own impoverished neighborhoods, analysts said.

"The local bureaucracy, in my view, is the main source of instability," said Maxim Shevchenko, director of the Center for Strategic Research on Modern Religion and Politics, a Moscow-based organization. "People are completely alienated from the system."

Valery Kokov, who was replaced last month as president of Kabardino-Balkaria, attempted for two years to crush all but an officially sanctioned version of Islam. Scores of young men have been arrested and tortured, according to human rights groups. Often, the beards that they wore as a sign of Muslim piety were forcibly shaved.

The authorities closed 18 mosques, and many others across the republic were allowed to open for only 30 minutes on Fridays, the Muslim Sabbath. Uniformed officials opened the mosques and took the names of everyone who attended service, according to accounts from the republic.

Some analysts trace Thursday's assault to the summer of 2003, when the Chechen rebel commander Shamil Basayev and his wife took shelter in the republic for a month. One of the campaign's results, human rights groups say, is that religious leaders and groups that are fundamentalist in theology but nonviolent have been driven underground.

The republic's official unemployment rate is 20 percent, and most of its people live in poverty. To many of them, human rights groups said, the local government elite seemed interested in self-enrichment, not the development of industry and jobs.

"The economy of the entire North Caucasus is based on black-market industries and theft from the federal government," said Konstantin Simonov, director of the Center for Contemporary Politics in Moscow. "For ordinary people, there is nothing. What we saw Thursday should surprise no one."

Over the past year, Kabardino-Balkaria has experienced a steady rise in violence, marked by raids against suspected radicals and the killing of local policemen and federal officers. In its lack of security, the republic was coming to resemble nearby Ingushetia and Dagestan. Then, on Thursday morning, a pitched battle exploded.

Russian officials said Friday they had eradicated the last pockets of resistance among the estimated 150 guerrillas who attacked government and police facilities.

Early Friday, Russian special forces stormed a police station where eight fighters were holding five hostages. The hostages, including police officers, were freed and all eight of their captors were killed as they tried to flee in a van, Russian officials said.

At around 8:30 a.m., another three gunmen were killed in a downtown souvenir store where they had barricaded themselves with two hostages. The two hostages were wounded but freed. Special forces in the Russian prison service killed another 12 guerrillas at the service's headquarters in Nalchik on Friday afternoon.

The exact death toll is unknown, but official estimates put the figure at 108. Authorities briefing President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin Friday said that 72 attackers had been killed and another 31 captured. Putin was also told that 24 security and police officers and 12 civilians had died in the conflict.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company