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Attacks Decimate Ingushetia's Interior Ministry

Chechen leader Aslan Maskhadov 22 June 2004 -- Russian President Vladimir Putin made a visit to Russia's southern republic of Ingushetia today, just hours after a series of attacks killed at least 57 people.

Putin met with Ingush President Murat Zyazikov and discussed the situation after a large group of armed fighters staged attacks in several cities overnight that targeted members of law enforcement agencies.

At least 47 of those killed were employees of Ingush law enforcement bodies. Putin said he had ordered a permanent regiment of Interior Ministry troops to be deployed in Ingushetia.

"Judging by everything that is going on here, the federal center is not doing enough to defend the [Ingush] republic. So I have already given the necessary orders in Moscow and I want to repeat it here: an interior forces regiment will be deployed in Nazran, which, together with the Defense Ministry, will take measures to reinforce the airport and set up the necessary security component there," Putin said.

Putin told Zyazikov it was essential to find "all the organizers" of the attacks and ordered the government to do all possible to help the families of those killed in the attacks.

Yesterday's onslaught appears to be the heaviest fighting reported in Ingushetia since September 2002, when hundreds of Chechen separatists clashed with Russian forces in the republic's west.

Talking today to reporters in the Far East region, where he is attending a military exercise, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov ruled out calling in army troops garrisoned in Nazran to help restore order in the North Caucasus republic:
"I do not think that we will have to send in [army] troops. I don't think that, but we have already dispatched, overnight, a military field hospital and, just in case, units to reinforce the Interior Ministry troops and border guards there."

The fighting erupted yesterday evening, with armed militants storming the Ingush Interior Ministry headquarters in Nazran, killing several officials. Russian and separatist news reports both said 30 police officers were killed during a simultaneous assault on nearby Interior Ministry barracks.

Among the victims are acting Interior Minister Ababukar Kostoev and his deputy, Zyaudin Kotiyev. Nazran Prosecutor-General Mukharbek Buzurtanov and several of his deputies and junior aides were also killed during the operation.

Details are still sketchy on who may have instigated the clashes.

Russian and regional authorities say some 200 armed "bandits" -- a derogatory term commonly used for Chechen fighters -- entered Ingushetia from Chechnya and North Ossetia before launching the attacks.

But the Ingushetia.Ru independent website quotes a traffic policeman who was taken hostage by a group of masked assailants as saying all of them were speaking Ingush. The policeman, who spoke on condition of anonymity, also said he witnessed the assassination of Prosecutor-General Buzurtanov and one of his aides.

"We do not kill traffic policemen. We just kill investigators, prosecutors, and judges who abduct and kill Ingush people and who sold themselves to the Russian secret services," the policeman quoted his captors as saying.

Whether the unidentified attackers were referring to a recent wave of disappearances in Ingushetia is unclear. Last month, Ingushetia.Ru said dozens of people opposed to Ingush President Murat Zyazikov or suspected of links to Chechen separatists had disappeared over the past few months at the hands of purported Russian-sponsored "death squads." The Ingush leadership has dismissed the report.

The overnight raiders reportedly withdrew after taking away loads of weapons and munitions stolen from an Interior Ministry depot.

Russian claims that nearly 100 assailants have been either killed or arrested could not be immediately confirmed. Also unconfirmed were news reports that a number of civilians had lost their lives in the clashes. The Chechen separatist quotes eyewitnesses as saying that Russian troops, on at least one occasion, opened fire on a car carrying civilians.

Outside Nazran, attacks on police stations were reported in the town of Karabulak and in the villages of Sleptsovskaya, Troitskaya, and Ordzhonikidzovskaya.

Small armed groups also assaulted security checkpoints on the Rostov-Baku highway that crosses Ingushetia from east to west.

Fighters also attempted to enter Magas, the newly built Ingush capital located in the Nazran suburbs, but subsequently changed direction.

Early today, Ingush Interior Ministry officials claimed the assailants had been driven back and were trying to reach Chechnya to the east. But fresh clashes were later reported in the western village of Galashki, near North Ossetia.

Addressing an emergency security meeting at the Kremlin today, Russian President Vladimir Putin vowed to exterminate all the attackers: "They must be found and destroyed. Those whom it is possible to take alive must be handed over to the courts."

In Chechnya, pro-Moscow Interior Minister Ali Alkhanov said his forces were on high alert and ready to intercept any armed militant who would attempt to enter the republic.

Alkhanov also blamed Chechen field commander Shamil Basayev and one of his ethnic Ingush subordinates, identified as Magomet Yevloev, for the attacks.

"Our information shows that only Basayev could have organized such an operation and that his men are actually responsible for the attacks," Alkhanov told Russia's ITAR-TASS, adding: "These attacks could not have taken place without [Chechen separatist President Aslan] Maskhadov's approval."

But the Chechen separatist leadership today seemed to deny responsibility for the attacks.

In a statement carried by the pro-independence Chechenpress news agency, Maskhadov's exiled spokesman Akhmed Zakayev blamed Moscow for "ignoring repeated warnings that it would be no longer possible to contain the blaze of the war within the boundaries of Chechnya."

"We can say with certainty that the war in Ingushetia started when the Kremlin forced Ingush President Ruslan Aushev to leave power [in December 2001] and replaced him with Zyazikov, a docile [ex-KGB] official. Since then Russian death squads have turned Ingushetia into a bloody hunting ground," Zakayev added.

Echoing Zakayev's comments, says: "The war is spilling over [Chechnya's] borders. If yesterday one could still speak of sporadic military and sabotage operations outside Chechnya, today we are witnessing a full-scale war that is being waged throughout the entire North Caucasus and Russia."

Ingush President Zyazikov has declared three days of mourning in memory of the victims of the attacks.

Speaking in Strasbourg, Council of Europe Secretary-General Walter Schwimmer condemned the overnight assault: "Yesterday night's attacks on official buildings and police stations in Ingushetia, with more than 40 people killed, cannot be but firmly condemned. Terrorism and violence do not lead to a political solution, which is the only possible solution."

But Schwimmer also urged Russia to contribute to the restoration of peace in the region.

"Only the full restoration of democracy, rule of law, and human rights in Chechnya will put an end to the suffering in this part of the Russian Federation," he said.

(RFE/RL with agencies)