74 Dead as Islamic Militants Stage Attacks in Southern Russia

By David Holley

Los Angeles Times

October 13, 2005

MOSCOW — Islamic militants staged coordinated attacks on police and government buildings in the southern Russian city of Nalchik today, as fresh violence spilled over from war-torn Chechnya to the broader North Caucasus region.

By early evening, 12 police, 12 civilians and more than 50 guerrillas had died in the day's fighting, authorities said.

As night fell, militants were holding several people hostage in a Nalchik police station, Russian First Deputy Interior Minister Alexander Chekalin told reporters. Three guerrillas were also barricaded in a souvenir shop, he said.

Chekalin estimated the number of militants involved in the attacks at a maximum of 100, but other officials said there could be up to 300 involved.

Russian President Vladimir V. Putin ordered the city of 235,000 be cordoned off to prevent militants from escaping overnight.

"The president gave an instruction that not one gunman should be allowed to leave the town, and those who are armed and putting up resistance must be wiped out," Chekalin said after meeting Putin, the Russian news agency Interfax reported.

Muhamed Samukov, an aide to Nalchik's mayor, said in an afternoon telephone interview that fighting in the city began around 9 a.m., with attacks on three police buildings, a state security office, an anti-organized-crime unit and a border guard detachment. The gunmen also tried to seize the city's airport but failed, other authorities said.

"They've made some noise, caused some mayhem and now are going to be trying to get out," Samukov said. "They have not made any demands. For now, they are only speaking the language of weapons. There have been no other attempts to communicate."

Alexei Malashenko, a Caucasus expert at the Moscow Carnegie Center, linked the incident to the ongoing military and political struggle in Chechnya between pro-Moscow and separatist forces, and to broad tensions between authorities and Islamists in the broader Caucasus region.

In recent years, he said, authorities in the republic of Kabardino-Balkaria, of which Nalchik is the capital, have sought to repress the expression of Islam outside officially approved channels, and this appears to have produced a backlash.

"Relations between officials and believers deteriorated," Malashenko said.

Today's attacks appeared to be an effort by Islamic militants "to show everybody, including the Kremlin administration, that they are very strong and can do whatever they like, even in a big city like Nalchik," he said. "And don't forget the parliamentary election that will take place in Chechnya on Nov. 27."

The intent of the raids, he said, could be to show Putin that the Chechen separatist rebels and their allies are powerful enough to influence the situation in Chechnya, in neighboring republics and at the national level.

Authorities pinned blame for the attack on a group called Yarmuk, which they said was linked to Islamic extremists and Chechen rebels led by Shamil Basayev and Abdul-Khalid Sadulayev. Yarmuk itself is led by Islamic radicals Anzor Astemirov and Iless Gorchkhanov, Deputy Prosecutor General Vladimir Kolesnikov told reporters in Nalchik.

The two Yarmuk leaders were already wanted by police for allegedly masterminding an attack on the Nalchik drug control office last December.

A statement posted on a rebel-linked website also credited Yarmuk with today's attacks.

Chekalin said the fighting began after police launched a pre-dawn operation to capture about 10 militants in a wooded area near Nalchik, and that the subsequent militant attacks in the city were aimed at diverting police.

Children were evacuated from schools as a preventive measure, authorities said.