October 13, 2005

Chechens attack Caucasus town, Putin talks tough

By Christian Lowe

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Chechen fighters launched a huge attack
on police and army buildings in a southern Russia town on
Thursday in a brazen operation that killed dozens and
challenged Kremlin assertions it had the turbulent Caucasus
under control.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who came to power in 2000
by talking tough on Chechnya, stepped into the crisis, ordering
his security forces to throw a ring of steel round the town of
Nalchik and kill any gunman who put up resistance.

"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," Deputy Interior
Minister Alexander Chekalin said after meeting Putin, Interfax
news agency reported.

Regional officials quoted by Russian news agencies said
that after a morning of mayhem in Nalchik, main city of the
Muslim Kabardino-Balkaria region near rebel Chechnya, at least
12 local residents had been killed and 64 others wounded.

News agencies put the number of militants at around 150 and
some as high as 200.

This was not confirmed by security forces, but Chekalin, in
televised comments, said 50 fighters had been killed. Between
10 and 12 police officers had been killed.

Kremlin envoy to southern Russia, Dmitry Kozak, said on
state television that the gunmen had stormed one police station
and taken hostages. But officials quoted by Itar-Tass news
agency said they were later freed, though there were no

Kozak said that overall the town was under control.

"There is no mass attack going on. The bandits who attacked
police stations and some other government buildings have been
dispersed for the most part," he said.

The bold, highly-coordinated attack on police, army and
Federal Security Service (FSB) points in Nalchik marked the
first major rebel operation since Abdul-Khalid Sadulayev took
over as leader of the Chechen separatists in March.

The separatists, who have been fighting for independence
from Russia for more than a decade, were quick to claim
responsibility for the assault on Nalchik, a town of about
280,000 people.


"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 (Islamist
brigade)," a statement on their Web site www.kavkazcenter.com

Kabardino-Balkaria is one of several Muslim regions in the
Caucasus and borders the North Ossetia province where Chechen
militants attacked a school in Beslan in September 2004,
resulting in the deaths of 331 people, half of them children.

Putin was seriously criticized for remaining silent for too
long at the beginning of the Beslan drama.

His decision to step publicly into the Nalchik crisis, with
his tough talk, appeared to show he was learning from that

"These were meticulously planned and synchronized attacks,"
a police source was quoted as saying by Tass which described
the attackers as "religious extremists."

At the height of the fighting, automatic firing resounded
around the town and smoke rose from one of the main police
buildings under attack.

Children were evacuated from a school nearby while police
sent in special forces and armored vehicles to tackle the

"I just woke up when an explosion went off. I could see
buildings were on fire. Buildings in the center are burning," a
local man, who did not wish to be named, told Reuters by
telephone. "I've heard grenades, machine guns, heavy machine
guns," he said.

Tass quoted police as saying the attackers had operated in
10 mobile groups, targeting five or six strategic points --
police buildings, Russian army units and a gun store.

An attempt to seize the regional airport was repelled,
agencies said.

In North Ossetia, scene of the Beslan school bloodbath,
security forces were put on high alert.

The attack was reminiscent of an operation in June 2004
when pro-Chechen militants attacked police buildings in Nazran
and effectively took control of the Ingushetia region -- near
to Kabardino-Balkaria -- for several hours. About 60 people,
many of them police, were killed in that attack.

(Additional reporting by Oliver Bullough)