Prague, 13 October 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin's envoy to the Southern Federal District, Dmitry Kozak, arrived in Nalchik from Rostov-na-Donu hours after the first clashes were reported. Kozak told reporters that security forces had managed to restore order in most of the embattled city by mid-afternoon. "The situation is normalizing," Kozak said. "At least mass unrest and attacks have been put down. The bandits that today attacked the law enforcement forces have been dispersed. There remains only a few pockets of resistance -- two, to be more precise. Fighting is still going on near the Interior Ministry's third department, where unfortunately people are being held hostage. There is an operation going there at the moment. [But] there are no more threats."
Situation Still Tense
Other reports, however, indicate that the situation remains tense. A Nalchik resident, who identified herself only by her last name of Khaupova, told RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service that the situation was particularly confused near the Interior Ministry's third department, just a few meters away from where she lives.
"[There are fighters] inside the building," the woman said. "They seized one floor, and police officers are still there. There are dead people [in the street]. It is impossible to even approach the building to collect the bodies. People fear the fighting might resume."
Russia's Channel One state television said heavy gunfire could still be heard near the central market by mid-afternoon. It also said explosions were reported in various neighborhoods of Nalchik. The militants reportedly attacked the Interior and security ministries headquarters, at least two police stations, an army recruitment center, the regional drugs-control office, and the Interior Ministry's anti-religious extremism department. Channel One quotes security officials as saying an attack against the city's airport was deterred.
Chechens Claim Responsibility
In a statement posted on the Kavkaz-Tsentr Chechen separatist center, an organization calling itself the Caucasus Front claimed responsibility for the attacks. Chechnya's separatist deputy prime minister, Akhmad Zakayev, told RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service that the Caucasus Front answers to the separatist president.
"The Caucasus Front was established by Abdul-Khalim Sadulayev after the death [of his predecessor] Aslan Maskhadov [in March]," Zakayev said. "It is a unit of the armed forces of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria. As far as I know, it was this unit that conducted this planned military operation in Nalchik."
Kabardino-Balkaria's newly elected president, Arsen Kanokov, told Russia's ITAR-TASS news agency that some 50 militants were killed in the street battle. Unconfirmed police reports say Anzor Astemirov, a man wanted for an attack on the Nalchik drugs-control office last year, died in the fighting.
Regional authorities have in the past tended to inflate militant casualties.
Although Kanokov admitted to the deaths of at least 12 Nalchik residents, Russian Deputy Interior Minister Aleksandr Chekalin denied there were civilian casualties. Chekalin, however, said at least 10 law enforcement officers were killed. Lyubov Khatsukova, a nurse at the Nalchik republican hospital, told RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service that casualty reports have to be constantly updated.
"[We already have] 13 dead and 62 people seriously wounded," Khatsukova said. "How could we possibly sort them out when new information is coming in every minute? We don't know whether these people are civilians. All [the wounded] are in a serious condition and receiving aid."
The first shoot-outs reportedly erupted overnight in a predominantly ethnic Balkar suburban area identified as Belaya Rechka, or White River. The fighting then gradually spread to the city's center. RFE/RL's Russian Service correspondent Yuri Bagrov reports from Vladikavkaz in neighboring North Ossetia that he talked to fellow journalists in Nalchik early on 13 October.
"As my colleagues told me, the fighting erupted overnight on the outskirts of Nalchik," Bagrov reported. "Someone had called the police to tell them he had spotted some 10 armed individuals moving around in Belaya [Rechka]. Police officers sent to the area [to check] were ambushed. Early this morning, the shooting spread to various Nalchik areas. The regional headquarters of the [federal] Interior and security ministries, as well as police buildings, were attacked."
Tensions Running High
Tensions in Kabardino-Balkaria and other Northern Caucasus republics have been running high for months, with security operations and militant attacks being reported on a regular basis. Kabardino-Balkaria's authorities last week claimed to have foiled a planned terrorist attack on Nalchik airport. The plot had reportedly been prepared by Astemirov, the man police claim died in the 13 October fighting in Nalchik.
In June of last year, coordinated militant attacks similar to those in Nalchik decimated the top leadership of the Interior Ministry and the Prosecutor-General's Office in Ingushetia, a republic that borders Chechnya to the west. Authorities in Kabardino-Balkaria have blamed most of the recent attacks in the republic on an alleged radical Islamic group called Yarmuk. That name may refer to the 7th-century battle that saw Arab forces routing a Byzantine army.
It's unclear whether Yarmuk is part of the Caucasus Front that is reportedly responsible for the latest attacks. Yarmuk's purported founder, a young ethnic Balkar known as Muslim Atayev, was killed in a police operation last January.
Security officials say Atayev had fought in Chechnya under separatist field commander Ruslan Gelayev. Kabardino-Balkaria's Interior Ministry says some 20 underground religious groups are operating in the republic, allegedly spreading Islamic fundamentalism among schoolchildren and university students. Human rights groups in turn say young believers who do not adhere to official religious guidelines handed down by the Spiritual Board of Muslims are being harassed by authorities.
The republic's secular leadership recently closed all but of Nalchik’s mosques. The remaining mosque is tightly controlled by the Spiritual Board. Kabardino-Balkaria is a predominantly Muslim republic of less than 900,000. About half of its population are Kabards. Russians are the second-largest ethnic group, comprising nearly one-third of the population. Turkic-speaking Balkars comprise another 10 percent.
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