Russian forces hunt down Nalchik rebels and warn of more violence

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Fresh violence flared in southern Russia yesterday as a senior defence ministry source warned last week's attack on the town of Nalchik was a dry run for a wider campaign by Islamist and Chechen radicals.

Security services shot dead one militant who allegedly took part in last Thursday's assault after he pulled a Kalashnikov rifle on them when asked to show his documents in a routine check.

Two other militants with him escaped, however, sparking a huge operation in which large parts of Nalchik were sealed off as soldiers went from house to house trying to flush out rebel fighters. Meanwhile, two more civilians died of their wounds in hospital, taking the official toll for non-combatants to 11.

There is, however, growing scepticism about the number of people killed in the assault on Nalchik, with eyewitness reports that the town's morgues are full and vivid accounts of the large-scale killings of civilian and police hostages by the rebels. Officially, 91 rebels were shot dead, 36 captured and 35 law enforcers and soldiers killed.

Tensions have been rising since last Thursday as the authorities have refused to hand back the bodies of militants to their relatives, who have been begging to be allowed to bury them according to Muslim tradition.

Under Russian law, terrorists are buried in unmarked graves and the deputy prosecutor general, Nikolai Shepel, said the rules would be upheld. But the president of Kabardino-Balkaria, the region where Nalchik is located, has said the bodies of "confused" fighters might be released so that "brutality does not beget brutality".

Meanwhile, a senior defence ministry source was quoted on an authoritative news website as warning that Nalchik was just the start of something much bigger. He said that most of the fighters who attacked the town were locals rather than Chechens and that the purpose of what he called a meticulously planned but poorly executed attack was to "bloody" the fighters.

"Everything points to this - the carefully prepared and planned attack, the choice of facilities to be attacked, the attackers' young age and lack of experience. The survivors got through their battle test and their commanders received full intelligence on how the law-enforcement agencies will react in this sort of situation. The fighters can now calmly plan a new attack on any town in the North Caucasus," the source warned.