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Kabardino-Balkaria: Was The Raid A Tactical Defeat Or A Change In Tactics?

Although many details of the 13 October multiple attacks in Nalchik, capital of the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic, remain unclear, and estimates of the number of militants who participated, and of those captured or killed, diverge significantly, the militants do not appear to have scored a military victory in the classic sense of the word. While they succeeded in sowing chaos and terror, the losses they inflicted may prove to be numerically smaller than in any single large-scale action undertaken by the Chechen resistance since 1995.

The decision to launch a near simultaneous attack on multiple targets -- 20, according to the Institute of War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), including the Federal Security Service (FSB), the antiterrorism unit, the Interior Ministry's central offices, the corrections department directorate, three police stations, the city airport, and a gun shop -- is reminiscent of "the attacks on Nazran and other towns in Ingushetia during the night of 21-22 June 2004, in which up to 80 police and security personnel were killed.

But on that occasion the attackers -- identified as young Chechen and Ingush fighters under the command of radical Chechen field commander Shamil Basayev -- inflicted far more casualties than they sustained. In Nalchik, by contrast, the assailants, whose numbers have been variously estimated at between "several dozen" and 500, lost between 50-70 men killed and up to 30 captured, but according to official Russian data killed only 24 Russian police and security organs personnel. Twelve civilians were reportedly killed, and some 120 hospitalized. It is not known how many, if any of those may have been caught in cross-fire or hit by mistake by Russian bullets.

A Change In Tactics?

If accurate, that ratio of casualties sustained to enemy killed suggests that the Nalchik attackers were less experienced, less well trained, and possibly less expertly commanded than the fighters who attacked Nazran last year. Eyewitnesses quoted by the IWPR noted that some of them were wearing civilian clothes rather than the camouflage uniforms favored by the Chechen resistance.

Wearing civilian clothes would, of course, make it easier for the militants to assemble in an urban area without attracting undue attention, given that the Nalchik raids were perpetrated in broad daylight while the Ingush raids were carried out at night.

Chechen accounts of the Nalchik operation, predictably, claimed it was a military success. In a statement posted on 14 October on the website, Chechen Deputy Prime Minister Akhmed Zakayev termed the assault the first victory of a "new campaign" by the Caucasus Front established in May by Abdul-Khalim Sadulayev, the successor to slain Chechen President and resistance leader Aslan Maskhadov.

A companion statement gave a considerably lower number of casualties among the militants than have Russian officials, claiming that as of 7:30 p.m. local time on 13 October, 11 fighters had been killed and four were missing.

That statement claimed that the attackers killed between 140-160 "infidels," wounded a further 150, and took over 100 police officers prisoner, as well as seizing unspecified quantities of weaponry.

But the relevance of the Nalchik raids may be totally unrelated to the number of casualties inflicted or sustained. Attacking in broad daylight suggests that the primary aim of the operation was to terrorize the local population -- which the attackers indubitably succeeded in doing.

Zakayev's comment implies that the Chechen resistance and its allies across the North Caucasus are preparing to launch similar attacks in other Russian cities, in line with Sadulayev's threat to bring the war to all those Russians who fail to register publicly their rejection of Moscow's "genocide" of the Chechen people.

Related Stories: Kabardino-Balkaria: A Deteriorating SituationNorth Caucasus: No Clear Strategy In Region

For RFE/RL's full coverage of events in the North Caucasus, see "News And Features On The North Caucasus"