Gunmen stormed the parliament building in Grozny, the volatile capital of Chechnya, yesterday morning in an audacious attack that left six dead and 17 injured. The assault – most likely carried out by Islamic insurgents – appeared to be timed to coincide with a visit to Grozny by Russia's interior minister, Rashid Nurgaliyev.
The attack deals a blow to Chechnya's Moscow-backed leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, who has claimed that there are only a few dozen remaining militants, portraying the insurgency as on its last legs.
The attack occurred shortly before 9am local time, as Chechen MPs were arriving for work. A militant approached the gates of the building and detonated a suicide belt, blowing himself up and injuring others around him, according to reports from the scene. Then at least two other militants ran into the parliament, opening fire on those inside.
A firefight ensued as the men barricaded themselves in a room inside the building. Mr Kadyrov arrived on the scene to direct personally the operation to "liquidate" the attackers.
The men were killed when they detonated suicide bombs after being surrounded by special-forces troops. Reporters at the scene saw bodies being removed along with the severed head of an insurgent. Along with the three militants, two policemen and one civilian were killed. Reports said that a further 17 people were injured in the attack, including six police officers and 11 civilians.
Television pictures showed heavily armed special-forces troops sweeping the building looking for booby traps or any stray fighters who had taken refuge. Many of the windows of the parliament building had been smashed, and the ceiling appeared to have collapsed in places.
"All of the MPs are alive, have been taken away from the parliament, and are safe," said Mr Kadyrov, shortly after the operation was completed.
The separatist goals of Chechen fighters in the 1990s, against whom Russia fought two brutal wars, have gradually morphed into more Islamist ideals in recent years; militant leaders say they want to establish an Islamic caliphate across the whole of the North Caucasus. The gunmen yesterday shouted "Allahu Akbar" as they entered the parliament building.
Russia's interior minister, Mr Nurgaliyev, said that yesterday's attack was uncharacteristic for Chechnya. "A situation like today's happens extremely rarely," he said. "It's stable and safe here."
Attacks within Chechnya are indeed infrequent these days. More common are attacks by groups of fighters based in neighbouring Dagestan and Ingushetia. In March, two female suicide bombers from Dagestan blew themselves up on the Moscow metro, killing 40 people. Doku Umarov, the self-styled "emir of the North Caucasus", claimed responsibility for the Moscow attacks and promised a further wave of violence against infrastructure and civilian targets within Russia proper.
Since March, however, the insurgents have been restricted to attacks within the North Caucasus, usually aimed at government or law-enforcement targets.
A Chechen interior ministry official told the Russian agency Itar Tass yesterday that the attack could have been the work of a new group, which has split off from Doku Umarov and is being led by 40-year-old Hussein Gakayev. "Attacking the parliament and destroying the leadership would be a way to loudly proclaim that he is the new leader, and send a message to his foreign sponsors," said the interior ministry source.
President Kadyrov and Chechen officials have accused Western security services of being behind the insurgency in the North Caucasus, though experts say financing is more likely to come from corrupt local officials.
In neighbouring Dagestan, insurgents send messages to local businessmen and officials, demanding money and threatening death for non-compliance. Mr Kadyrov is a former rebel himself and is accused by human-rights groups of being involved in torture, kidnapping and other abuses.
In an apparent attempt to undercut religious support for the insurgency, he has also promoted his own brand of Islamic values, including backing a campaign earlier this year where women walking on the streets without their heads covered were shot at with paintball guns from passing cars.