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Russia: Situation In Kabardino-Balkaria Remains Murky

An independent overview of the situation in Nalchik, the capital of Kabardino-Balkaria, remains impossible to obtain, a day after a series of coordinated attacks by groups of armed militants. Russian officials say security forces in the southern republic successfully ended two hostage incidents on the morning of 14 October with no loss of life to civilians. It appears Russian forces have now regained control over most of the city. Many questions remain, however, including the identity of the assailants, how many were, in fact, killed, and how many of the dead and wounded were civilians.

Prague, 14 October 2005 (RFE/RL) – According to Russian officials, security forces in Nalchik freed seven hostages today who were being held in a police station and a gift shop -- ending the tensest part of the operation to retake the city from the militants who assaulted it on 13 October.

Officials say 11 militants were killed in the 14 October rescue efforts. A thick fog blanketed Nalchik this morning, making the situation all the more murky. Russian officials say some 100 people have been killed since the violence began. They say at least 70 of those are militants, 12 are security forces officers, and another 12 are civilians. In addition, more than 100 people are being treated in city hospitals for injuries.

How Many Militants?

On 13 October, at the height of the militant assault, Russian officials estimated the number of armed attackers at between 60 and 300. It remains unclear, therefore, how many of the assailants may have managed to escape.

“There were reports that up to 300 militants took part in the attack on Nalchik," Ivan Safranchuk, director of the Moscow-based Center for Defense Information, told RFE/RL. "If 80 were killed and another dozen or so captured, it means that two-thirds managed to escape. If there were really 300 [militants], then 80 killed is, in my opinion, a bad result.”

Speaking late on 13 October in Moscow, Russian Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev indicated that the authorities are not sure how many militants remain at large. "I am ordering the start of search operations to locate wounded rebels, [including] the search of hospitals, sanatoriums, and private doctors in order to track down rebels who may have remained in the city with arms in their possession and access to caches which they may have left to conduct further armed resistance," Nurgaliyev said.

Nurgaliyev also said the identities of the dead attackers remain unconfirmed, despite official talk of a Chechen connection. "It is essential to take immediate measures to establish the identities of the liquidated rebels, in order to establish their criminal ties and ties to terrorists," the interior minister said.

Poor Track Record

With the city under a police blockade, as ordered by President Vladimir Putin, independent reporting from Nalchik has been difficult.

Safranchuk cautions that the authorities have a spotty track record when it comes to giving accurate information about such incidents.

“Russia has the practice of making statements that turn out to be unsubstantiated," Safranchuk said. "For example, during the terror attack in Beslan, the Russian defense minister declared that the school had been seized by international terrorists -- Arabs, black men, Chinese. Later, it became clear there were apparently no foreigners involved.”

So far, no identifiable pictures have been shown of the dead nor testimony given by militants who were reportedly captured, making the authorities’ statements impossible to verify. A group calling itself the Caucasus Front, which purports to speak for militants from Chechnya and other North Caucasus republics, says it is behind the attacks. The claim was made on the website, which frequently posts messages from Chechen separatists.

On 14 October, the website said most of the assailants were from Kabardino-Balkaria, and had received some assistance from outsiders. The attack on Nalchik strongly resembles a raid in June 2004 on Nazran, the main city in nearby Ingushetia. In that attack, claimed by Chechen rebel commander Shamil Basayev, groups of armed militants attacked police stations, army barracks, and municipal offices, stealing weapons and killing up to 80 police and other officials.

Many of the attackers escaped. If the official reports are true, Russian security forces were more successful this time at killing or capturing the militants. But the fact that the militants managed to bring terror and chaos on such a scale to yet another North Caucasus republic testifies to their apparent organization and ability to project force over a broad area. The Beslan school massacre in North Ossetia remains uppermost in people’s minds. But in the past year, insurgents in neighboring Daghestan, Ingushetia, and Chechnya have mounted constant smaller attacks on police and other officials.

Like its neighbors, Kabardino-Balkaria has a faltering economy that depends on subsidies from the Russian federal budget. Unemployment is high. Experts say the iron-fisted rule of Kabardino-Balkaria’s recently retired President Valerii Kokov, who failed to improve living standards while suppressing independent political and religious groups, helped fuel radicalism. The Nalchik violence will be a severe test for his successor, Arsen Kanokov, as well as the Kremlin in Moscow.

(RFE/RL correspondent Claire Bigg in Moscow contributed to this report.)

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