Fog of war envelops Russian city

They advance slowly and carefully, hugging close to the wall of a souvenir store, communicating with hand signals in a town shrouded in heavy morning fog.

Without warning, the tense quiet is shattered as the special forces unit, backed by an armoured vehicle nearby, opens fire on the store with grenades and automatic weapons.

In a flash, the street becomes a battlefield as the gunmen in the store return fire and the fog gives way to clouds of white dust from bullets ricocheting off the wall.

A second unit arrives from the opposite side of the building taking up a position near the entrance to the store where two Chechen gunmen, possibly holding hostages, are holed up.

Shots from inside the building ring out and a member of the elite “spetsnaz” unit goes down, shot in the leg. Fellow troops immediately rush to him, pick him up and carry him away from the scene.

Another salvo of grenades and automatic weapons fire and the troops signal they have taken control of the building and killed the gunmen barricaded inside since Thursday, when scores of pro-Chechen gunmen launched a daring, massive raid on this southern Russian city.

The fight over, the inanimate bodies of two women whose identities are unclear are carried out of the shop.

“Are they alive?” shouts one of the “spetsnaz” soldiers.

“We’re taking them to the hospital,” another responds.

Elsewhere in Nalchik, a police station where gunmen holding hostages had resisted security forces since Thursday, is reported to have been “liberated” following a similar storming operation. Officials say eight militants were killed and five hostages freed.

It is 9.20am (5.20am GMT), the assaults on the souvenir shop and the police station have ended with apparent success, and the city of Nalchik is only just waking up, still smothered in fog and under a steady drizzle.

At the Rossiya hotel opposite the souvenir shop, the arrival of employees for work coincides with the conclusion of the soldiers’ assault.
Cleaning staff gather in the basement, frightened by the explosions and gunfire that rocked the city for the second consecutive day.

One employee, Yevgeniya Sokurova, stands alone near a window and watches the “spetsnaz” operation unfold, talking about the raid the previous day by the “dirty fighters” who attacked government installations in Nalchik.

“The bodies of two rebels are over there,” she says, pointing toward the pavement outside the local headquarters of the Russian FSB security service, formerly the KGB.

“The first went down right away. The other one was hit, but the soldiers fired on his ammunition and he caught fire. His hair was burning,” Sokurova said.

At one point in the day, one of the militants walked out into the open. “There was shooting everywhere. Children, who were in the middle of the square, were evacuated to the Parliament. The soldiers tried to carry away their four wounded,” she said.

Streets in the city are blocked by armoured personnel carriers, where young conscripts stand guard. As the morning advances, public buses begin appearing on the streets.

“It seems they captured some of them,” says Timur, a taxi driver. “I hope they torture them instead of questioning them.”

At the main Nalchik hospital, dozens of family members await a chance to see any of the 63 local residents who required urgent hospitalisation following the attack on Thursday.

Khauti Kumakhov, the nephew of Svetlana Bituyeva, has been in intensive care since Thursday. He was hit by two bullets, one in the abdomen and one in the hand, as he went on Thursday morning to the police station where the gunmen held the hostages.

“They operated on him. He is breathing on his own now, but they won’t let me see him,” Bituyeva says.

Nearby, a group of elderly men have gathered at a kiosk.

“These Wahhabis come just to stir up trouble in the Caucasus because they don’t have any demands,” one of them says, employing the term often used in southern Russia to describe militant armed groups in the region.

“In any case, they could not have planned such an operation, against eight targets, without the help of our police. The problem is corruption,” another responds. - AFP

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