Chechen clashes leave many dead

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The Independent Online

Militants launched simultaneous attacks on police and government buildings in one of the main cities in Russia's turbulent Caucasus region today, in which at least 13 people were reported killed.

Chechen rebels claimed responsibility for the attacks in Nalchik, the capital of Kabardino-Balkariya. The republic, near Chechnya, has been hit by a growing wave of violence apparently connected to Islamic extremists and the Chechen rebels' decade-long fight against Russian forces.

Amid the chaos, officials gave varying accounts of casualties and the number of attackers. At least 13 people were killed and 75 wounded, local health ministry spokesman Stepan Kuskov said, including three civilians, three rebels and seven police officers.

The republic's president, Arsen Kanokov, was quoted by the ITAR-Tass news agency as saying about 50 militants had been killed. Estimates of the number of attackers ranged from 60 to 300.

Sporadic shooting continued some four hours after the morning attacks began.

The Kavkaz-Center Web site, seen as a voice for rebels loyal to Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev, said it had received a short message on behalf of the Caucasus Front. It said the group is part of the Chechen rebel armed forces and includes Yarmuk, an alleged militant Islamic group based in Kabardino-Balkariya.

The strategy of launching simultaneous attacks on police facilities was similar to last year's siege in another Caucasus republic, Ingushetia, in which 92 people died and police armories were looted. Basayev claimed responsibility for those attacks.

A local Interior Ministry officer said today's fighting began after police received an anonymous telephoned tip that about 10 armed militants had entered the suburb of Belaya Rechka, and police and security forces launched an operation to capture them.

The Interfax news agency cited an unidentified law-enforcement official as saying the battle was sparked by the detention of a group of adherents to the radical Wahhabi sect of Islam, and that their fellow believers were trying to free them.

Gunmen launched simultaneous attacks against three police stations, the city's airport and the regional headquarters of the Interior Ministry and Federal Security Service, a police officer said on condition of anonymity. They also attacked the city's military commissariat and raided a hunting store, apparently to obtain weapons, the officer said.

The regional office of the Emergency Situations Ministry said fighting was under way at the airport. Interfax said security forces had repelled an attack there. All flights were cancelled.

The militants also attacked the regional headquarters of the Russian prison system, the Emergency Situation Ministry's press office said. Interfax said a border guards' office also came under attack.

An Associated Press reporter saw three bodies in one street in the city centre near government buildings: one in police uniform, one man with a gun and one in civilian clothes.

A teacher from School No. 5, who gave only his first name, Spartak, said children had been evacuated from the building, located close to a police station and an anti-terrorism office at the centre of the attacks. Black smoke billowed around as panic-stricken parents searched for their children in the school yard.

Federal forces blocked off much of the city of 235,000, but intense shooting from automatic rifles and grenade-launchers could be heard in the centre.

Nalchik is about 100 kilometres northwest of Beslan, where Chechen rebels raided a school in September 2004, taking hundreds of hostages. More than 330 people, half of them children, died in the raid which ended in explosions and gunfire after three days.

In December, gunmen raided the regional branch of the federal Drug Control Agency in Nalchik, killing four employees, looting an arsenal and setting the office ablaze.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered security forces to deal more severely with suspected Islamic militants in the south. Law-enforcement agencies have launched a series of sweeps targeting suspected extremists outside Chechnya.