Troops crush Chechen 'bandits' as Putin promises no mercy

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The Independent Online

He spoke after special forces and interior ministry troops in Nalchik boasted they had "destroyed" the last three groups of rebels who had been holding civilians and policemen hostage. The rebel assault, the authorities crowed, had been put down.

The death toll in the southern Russian city, which the rebels tried to seize by force on Thursday, was constantly creeping higher with the authorities claiming to have killed 91 militants and to have captured 36 alive.

Russian television broadcast pictures of defeated-looking bearded men lined up on both sides of a police station wall being guarded by balaclava-clad men with Kalashnikovs.

Civilian fatalities were high though a final list has yet to be compiled. From contradictory official announcements it is clear, however, that at least 20 civilians were killed along with 24 policemen and several soldiers. At least 140 others are in hospital, some in a critical condition.

Speaking to the heads of his so-called power ministries, Mr Putin promised that any future rebel aggression would be quelled just as decisively.

"It's bad that bandit raids of this kind are possible," he said. "And it's a huge tragedy that we have incurred losses among law enforcement officials and civilians. Everyone who suffered and relatives of the dead will be helped. What is good is that this time the law enforcement agencies and the military acted in a co-ordinated fashion, effectively and harshly. If anyone takes up arms in future and threatens the lives and health of our citizens or the territorial integrity of Russia we'll deal with them in the same way. We'll respond harshly and proportionately."

Special forces carried out three separate mopping-up operations, killing at least 20 rebel gunmen in the course of the day.

Eight rebel fighters had been holed up in a police station with five hostages while two or three other gunmen had barricaded themselves inside a gift shop with two female hostages.

A further 12 gunmen were occupying a correctional centre with 12 hostages. All three groups were the remnants of a larger force of 200 to 600 fighters.

The authorities claimed late yesterday afternoon that all the hostages had been freed unharmed and that all the militants holding them had been "destroyed". Russian television showed an armoured personnel carrier driving through the gift shop's wall after grenades had been fired through its barred windows. The grenades allegedly contained a knock-out gas and a short while later two female hostages were seen being ushered to a waiting ambulance in a state of shock. The militants in the police station were reported to have negotiated a minibus only to later crash it into a tree and die in a shoot-out. The correctional facility was apparently simply stormed.

The "mopping-up" operations drew a line under two days of drama that have punctured the Kremlin's claims to have brought the troubled North Caucasus region under control. The assault was the biggest rebel operation since the Beslan school siege last year and showed that Chechen militants are far from defeated.

They may have been repelled with heavy losses but they left a war zone behind them, captured a large amount of weapons and ammunition and put the Russian authorities on notice that a new, wider front against Moscow has been opened.

The raid was a carbon copy of one that took place in June 2004 on the city of Nazran in neighbouring Ingushetia and Russian MPs said the Kremlin had clearly not learnt its lesson. A website recognised as the official mouthpiece of the rebel Chechen government said its "mujahedin" had been responsible for the attack. Eyewitnesses claimed to have seen the Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev personally directing the attacks. He was the man behind the Beslan siege in which 331 people died. However the authorities have so far played down such reports.