Russian police tackle town’s last rebel holdout
By Oleg Shchedrov
NALCHIK, Russia (Reuters) – Russian security forces said on
Friday they had all but wiped out the remnants of a rebel force
that tried to storm a Caucasus town in an attack that raised
doubts about the Kremlin’s control in the region.
One small group of rebels was still holed up in a prison
administration building in Nalchik about 30 hours after
militants attacked police and government offices in Nalchik in
a string of simultaneous assaults on Thursday morning.
Police said it was an isolated incident. They were now
focusing on hunting down any gunmen who may have ditched their
arms and tried to sneak out of the city, set in the foothills
of the towering Mount Elbrus, by melting into the local
Separatists from nearby Chechnya, who have been fighting
against Moscow rule for a decade, said they staged the raid
with support from local sympathizers.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, who came to power in 2000
by talking tough on Chechnya, ordered his security forces to
cordon off Nalchik after the attack by at least 100 rebels and
kill any gunmen who resisted.
“The events in Nalchik demonstrated with new, shocking
force the fragility of what the authorities … have been
calling ‘peace,”‘ Izvestia newspaper said in an editorial. “We
have to admit: there is a war going on in the Caucasus.”
Sporadic gunfire that could be heard on Thursday had died
down. The only sign of rebel resistance in Nalchik, a grid of
dusty tree-lined streets with ramshackle single-story houses,
was at the prison administration building.
Local residents said gunmen were occupying the basement and
the ground floor, trapping workers in the building on the upper
floors. Police had cordoned off the street.
“I can’t get through to my brother by telephone. He works
in (the building) and he is among those who are on the upper
floor,” a distraught woman at the cordon told Reuters.
News agencies quoted police as saying they were mounting an
operation to neutralize the rebels in the building and were
confident the standoff would be over soon.
Earlier on Friday, security forces said they had killed or
captured two groups of rebels still in the town.
Pictures broadcast by Russia’s NTV television station
showed special forces troops in bullet-proof jackets and
helmets, backed up by an armored personnel carrier, firing
through the window of a souvenir shop.
Moments later, they stormed the shop and dragged out a
woman hostage who appeared to be unconscious.
The authorities’ rapid response to the crisis was in
contrast to last year’s deadly attack by Chechen militants on a
school in the town of Beslan, when the Russian leader was
widely criticized for staying silent for too long.
But it remained unclear whether it would deflect public
criticism over another failure by security services to prevent
a rebel assault in the turbulent region.
There was no definitive death toll from Thursday’s
audacious daylight attack. RIA Novosti news agency reported
that a total of 24 servicemen and police had died, and other
reports said between 14 and 24 civilians had died.
The closely coordinated attack on police, army and Federal
Security Service points in Nalchik marked the first major rebel
operation since Abdul-Khalid Sadulayev took over as leader of
the Chechen separatists in March.
Analysts said it was in line with Sadulayev’s aim of taking
the fight against Moscow’s beyond Chechnya to encompass the
rest of the mainly Muslim north Caucasus region.
Police said 61 rebels had died in the raid in Nalchik, main
city of the Kabardino-Balkaria region, while 17 had been
captured. Rebel Web sites put their losses at 11 dead and four