The latest Russian reports indicate that yesterday's coordinated attacks left more than 90 people dead and 120 wounded. Among the dead are Ingushetia's acting Interior Minister Abukar Kostoev, his deputy Zyaudin Kotiev, Nazran Prosecutor-General Mukharbek Buzurtanov, and a few other government officials.
Ingushetia's Interior Ministry yesterday admitted that most of the victims were policemen, Federal Security Service (former KGB) investigators, prosecutors, and other law-enforcement officers. Many of them were reportedly caught in their sleep and killed in the presence of their relatives.
A few civilians, including a local United Nations worker, were killed in the crossfire.
The nearly simultaneous overnight raids targeted 15 official buildings in the former Ingush capital, Nazran, and at least three towns and villages located on the Baku-Rostov highway that crosses the republic from east to west.
The rampage lasted nearly five hours, and the assailants -- said to number 200 to 300 -- withdrew almost unscathed. The raiders apparently lost only two men during the attacks.
Initial reports that law-enforcement agencies had succeeded in killing or arresting a large number of armed militants were subsequently denied. In remarks late yesterday, Ingush President Murat Zyazikov said that only a few people have been detained on charges of violating the passport regime. What happened to the militants remains unclear.
Reports of heavy fighting in the village of Galashki, south of Nazran, suggest some of them are trying to cross into the republic of North Ossetia, which borders Ingushetia to the west. Russian Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliev yesterday said he had information showing that other fighters were trying to reach Chechnya to the east.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, who late yesterday paid a surprise visit to Ingushetia on his way to the Far East, admitted breaches in the regional security system and pledged additional troops to the North Caucasus. "Judging by what is going on here, the federal center is not doing enough to protect the republic [of Ingushetia]," he said. "Therefore I already gave the necessary orders, and I want to repeat them here -- a regiment of Interior Ministry troops will be deployed in Nazran and measures must be taken in coordination with the Defense Ministry to reinforce [Nazran] airport and set up adequate security elements there."
Commenting on yesterday's raids and Putin's reaction, some Russian observers are expressing concern that the Chechen war may be spilling over its boundaries and setting neighboring republics ablaze. "There is a Caucasus war going on," the Moscow-based "Kommersant-Daily" noted today, saying that separatist fighters managed to effectively take control of Ingushetia for a few hours.
This is not the first time fighting has been reported outside Chechnya since Russian troops first entered the breakaway republic in December 1994.
Chechen separatist fighters have in the past conducted armed forays into Ingushetia, Daghestan, and Russia's southern Stavropol Krai. In 1999, in particular, some 2,000 fighters led by Shamil Basaev entered Daghestan and resisted Russian troops there for 10 days before returning to Chechnya.
Yet, Russian commentators yesterday noted with concern that, unlike previous external operations, the overnight raids had apparently been performed by local people.
In a report filed from Nazran, RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service correspondent Aslanbek Dadaev gathered additional evidence suggesting many of the attackers were Ingush: "In all likelihood, the overnight incursions carried out by militants in Ingushetia had been carefully planned and organized. Many local residents are convinced that only local fighters could have carried out such an operation. As evidence to their claims, these people say the attackers were taking their bearings perfectly well and knew exactly where to find their targets. In addition, they knew exactly where to find the law enforcement officials who were killed that night."
The Chechen leadership also seems to support the Ingush version of events. A report carried by the Kavkaz-Tsenter separatist information website yesterday ascribed the overnight raids to "Ingush mujahedins."
Despite Chechen separatist President Aslan Maskhadov's claims to the contrary, Russian officials and pro-Moscow regional leaders maintain that Chechen fighters are to blame for the onslaught. Vladimir Mukomel, who runs the Moscow-based Center for Ethnopolitical and Regional Studies, believes the reported presence of many Ingush among the assailants does not necessarily herald an expansion of the war beyond Chechnya's boundaries.
"It is an open secret that when we talk about 'Chechen' fighters, we do not mean exclusively 'Chechen nationals.' We all know that residents of Karachaevo-Cherkessia, Kabardino-Balkaria, Daghestan, and other [North Caucasus] republics -- even people from the Volga region, or simply Russians -- are fighting alongside the Chechens. With regard to the possible participation of Ingush [in yesterday's raids], I don't think this a new element in the ongoing confrontation between Russia and Chechnya. I think it would be unwise, at the present stage, to talk about an escalation of the conflict just because Ingush fighters reportedly took part in these attacks," Mukomel said.
The Russian political leadership is striving to downplay the political impact of the raids. In comments made during talks with Zyazikov and other Ingush officials, Putin yesterday accused Chechen separatists of seeking to sow panic in neighboring republics.
"I assume everyone here understands what is going on. This is yet another attempt -- not the first one, note -- at intimidating the Ingush people, intimidating the Ingush leadership, and destabilizing the situation in Russia's south, in particular in the Caucasus region," Putin said.
Former St. Petersburg Governor Vladimir Yakovlev, who now represents Putin in the North Caucasus region, yesterday speculated that the raids were designed to impress the Chechen separatists' foreign donors and draw additional funding to the resistance movement.
Mukomel of the Center for Ethnopolitical and Regional Studies said that, despite their psychological impact, yesterday's raids hardly signal a new stage in the Chechen war. "I do not believe [these raids] represent a new stage,” he said. “Only if we had witnessed a qualitative change in the tactics or strategy used by Chechen fighters would we be able to talk about a 'new stage.' But this looks unlikely. Why? First, because separatist forces remain divided, and I believe we should not expect a repetition of the large-scale operations of the summer of 1996 [that saw Chechen fighters retake Grozny from Russian troops], or the 1999 raids on Daghestan. To me, this is more a show of force, and in this respect one has to acknowledge that the Chechen fighters still have significant resources. Secondly -- and this is perhaps the most important -- it is very important for them to show their own people, the Russian leadership and the international community that they are still here and that they remain key political players in the region."
Meanwhile, the pro-Moscow Chechen administration today said it does not rule out the possibility of similar raids being carried out in the near future in Daghestan, North Ossetia, or Kabardino-Balkaria.
Also yesterday, a report posted on the Russian gazeta.ru information website said federal troops in Russian-controlled Chechnya had been put on high alert amid fears of coordinated separatist attacks on Grozny, Gudermes, and Argun.