Cross-border killing spree by Chechen rebels claims 57 victims

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The Independent Online

Russia's unofficial war in Chechnya spilled over into a neighbouring republic yesterday after 200 heavily armed men went on a bloody spree in the republic of Ingushetia, killing 57 people dead and wounding many more.

Russia's unofficial war in Chechnya spilled over into a neighbouring republic yesterday after 200 heavily armed men went on a bloody spree in the republic of Ingushetia, killing 57 people dead and wounding many more.

The attack left much of Ingushetia, west of Chechnya, looking like a war zone, and punched a fresh hole through Vladimir Putin's faltering strategy to tame separatist violence in the largely Muslim region. Russian TV broadcast images of charred and mutilated bodies in the streets of Nazran, Ingushetia's largest town, and smoking piles of rubble.

A visibly angry Russian President vowed revenge and ordered his forces to hunt down the perpetrators and punish them. "They must be found and destroyed," Mr Putin was shown telling security officials in Moscow. "Those whom it is possible to take alive must be handed over to the courts."

The audacious attack began on Monday night as men described by Russian media as Islamist radicals of Chechen and Ingush nationality filtered across the republic's border, bluffing their way past posts and turning back to murder border guards.

Armed with automatic weapons and grenade and rocket-launchers, the focus of their attack was the Ministry of interior building in Nazran. The fighters cut off its electricity supply and phone lines and assaulted the building with RPGs.

They took it, set it ablaze, plundered arms and ammunition dumps then retreated. Ingushetia's acting interior minister was killed, with his deputy and scores of policemen, prosecutors and soldiers. Beslan Khamkoyev, the republic's new acting interior minister, said 47 of the 57 dead were law enforcement officials.

A Russian camera crew which bumped into the rebels claimed the men had identified themselves as "the martyrs' brigade" and told them: "We have shot everyone here. Go and announce that."

Nazrani Roza, an inhabitant of Nazran, said people had cowered in their homes as the fighting raged. "I didn't dare venture out on to the street. We were afraid to go out the whole night and sat inside listening to the explosions. It was awful. Dead bodies are everywhere, right in the roads."

Moscow fears that Chechnya's apparently intractable violence and thirst for independence could spread to other parts of southern Russia such as Dagestan where the interior ministry was also reported to have been attacked on Monday night. Russian forces including elite Spetznaz troops were hunting down the rebels yesterday with helicopter gunships. Sporadic but fierce fighting was reported in several villages.

Arab TV station Al-Jazeera claimed the rebels had made off with 20 hostages but the Russian authorities said they had no such information. Officials said the rebels had mostly left Ingushetia and were now in Chechnya proper or Georgia. Only a few insurgents appear to have been killed. Last week, the Chechen rebel leader, Aslan Maskhadov, said large-scale attacks were imminent outside Chechnya's borders.

The Chechen interior minister, General Alu Alkhanov, said yesterday that Maskhadov was involved, as was another Chechen warlord, Shamil Basayev, Russia's most wanted man. Rebel websites merely said the attack was the work of a mujahadeen unit.

A spokesman for Russian forces in Chechnya said: "The attacks were sabre-rattling, aimed at demonstrating the rebels' effectiveness to attract funding from foreign terror networks." The last time Chechen rebels struck in Ingushetia was in October, 2002, when 17 Russian soldiers were killed.

Ingushetia has declared a three-day period of mourning. Barely a month ago, Chechnya's Moscow-backed president, Akhmad Kadyrov, died in a bomb-blast in a sports stadium. Elections for a successor are to be held in August.

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