60 killed as Chechen gunmen attack city
More than 60 people were killed on Thursday in the southern Russian city of Nalchik in simultaneous attacks on government targets claimed by rebels from nearby breakaway Chechnya, officials said.
President Vladimir Putin’s special envoy to the region, Dmitry Kozak, said on state television the militants had seized hostages in a police station, while a top Russian official said Putin had ordered the city sealed and issued shoot-to-kill orders for anyone using arms to resist police.
“There are clashes in more than two areas. It is at police station number three where, unfortunately, there are hostages. An operation is under way” to try to secure their release, Kozak said.
He described the attacks in Nalchik as an organised assault “on the law-enforcement system of the city”.
The Russian interior ministry said armoured vehicles and special forces troops were involved in efforts to subdue the attackers.
Arsen Kanokov, president of the Kalbardino-Balkario province where Nalchik is located, was quoted by Itar-Tass news agency as saying most of those killed in fierce fighting were among the about 150 gunmen who launched the attacks.
The dead also included about a dozen Nalchik residents, Kanokov said.
Russia’s Deputy Interior Minister Alexander Chekalin, quoted by Interfax news agency, said these fatalities were all law-enforcement personnel.
Kanokov said about 50 people were wounded and were receiving treatment in local hospitals.
Media reports said that as many as 300 militants were involved in the attacks that targeted the local offices of the Russian FSB federal security service and the interior ministry.
Interfax said the militants also tried to attack the Nalchik airport but were thwarted, while RIA-Novosti said they attacked at least two police stations and a private store that sells weapons.
In an image reminiscent of last year’s Beslan school hostage siege, children were seen fleeing from a primary-school building while gunfire erupted nearby and smoke hung over the area.
Officials made clear later that they had ordered an emergency evacuation of the school due to its proximity to the sites under attack.
Russian media said gun battles occurred at a number of locations in Nalchik.
The city centre was saturated with security forces, while gunfire could be heard nearby.
A local journalist quoted by RIA-Novosti said the gunmen were dressed in civilian clothing and took advantage of panic to blend in with the local population, hiding weapons under their clothes as they changed locations, before opening fire again on security forces.
A statement posted on a website used regularly by the rebels said the attack was mounted by a unit of the Caucasus Front of the Armed Forces of the Chechen Ishkeria Republic.
The Kavkazcenter website said the gunmen belonged to the “Yarmuk jamat of Kabardino-Balkaria”.
The attack, the most spectacular since Beslan in September last year, was the latest in a series by Chechen rebels on Russian federal security installations in the volatile North Caucasus region and posed another challenge to Putin’s policy in Chechnya and the wider region.
Shoot to kill
Chekalin met Putin at the official presidential country residence and told reporters afterwards that the Russian leader had issued a shoot-to-kill order.
“The president ordered that not a single fighter be allowed to leave the city limits,” Chekalin was quoted by Interfax as saying.
“Anyone who puts up resistance with weapons in his hands must be liquidated” on the spot, Chekalin said, adding: “This order from the president will be carried out.”
Interfax quoted an official as saying that the attacks were in reprisal for the recent arrest in Nalchik of a group of Islamic radicals, whom the gunmen were attempting to free.
Large teams of Chechen rebels have carried out similar attacks in other cities in the region in the past, with one of their key tactical objectives apparently being the acquisition of weapons from security personnel.
The Yarmak unit said to have launched the Nalchik operation was the target of a swoop by security forces in January, a month after militants seized weapons from the local offices of the anti-narcotics agency.
Russian troops and pro-Russian Chechen security forces have been fighting a war in Chechnya for the past six years, the second war there in a decade.
Russian officials insist the conflict is winding down and the situation normalising, but Chechen rebels have vowed to keep up attacks in Chechnya and elsewhere in Russia until Russian forces leave the republic.—AFP