Accessibility links

Breaking News

Russia: Rights Group Says Purpose Of Nalchik Attack Still Unclear

Security officer in Nalchik during the attacks (AFP) Armed militants with purported links to Chechnya's separatist leadership on 13-14 October launched an assault on Nalchik, the capital of the predominantly Muslim Russian republic of Kabardino-Balkaria. Officials say the two days of unrest claimed the lives of 35 security officers, 12 civilians, and nearly 95 militants. They describe the assault as part of an international terror plot aimed at destabilizing the entire North Caucasus region. Chechnya's radical separatist field commander Shamil Basayev, for his part, says the Nalchik events herald a new stage in the “holy jihad” against Moscow. But for at least one observer -- the Russian rights group Memorial -- the motives behind the assault remain unclear.

Prague, 26 October 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The raids targeted Kabardino-Balkaria’s main army, police, and security buildings.

The assailants apparently concentrated their efforts on the regional headquarters of the federal Interior and Security ministries. They also attacked Kabardino-Balkaria’s army recruitment center, Nalchik’s drugs control office, and the Interior Ministry’s anti-religious extremism department.

Fighting was also reported near the city’s airport.

Yet none of these attacks succeeded. One handful of militants managed to capture an Interior Ministry building, but they were killed after a few hours of fighting.

Russian Deputy Prosecutor-General Nikolai Shepel said on 21 October that the attackers had wanted to seize all of the city’s strategic buildings and infrastructure -- from banks and television stations, to prisons, post offices, and bridges.

“Some 18 targets were attacked, and we have information showing that [the militants] were planning to eventually attack twice that number -- that is, approximately 40 targets," Shepel said. "We believe that was meant to occur during the second stage of the offensive.”

Shepel went on to say the Nalchik raids show Russia has become the target of international religious fundamentalists seeking to destabilize the entire region.

“Today we must understand -- and this is of utmost importance -- that we are confronted with a serious, well-organized force, whose ideology represents a real threat to our state and its [territorial] integrity,” Shepel said.

At first glance, Chechen field commander Basaev’s claims that he helped prepare the Nalchik assault seem to support Shepel’s theory.

In a statement posted on the Kavkaz Center separatist website on 17 October, three days after the end of the fighting, Basayev said 217 Muslim fighters took part in the raid, inflicting heavy losses on the Russian security forces.

In an earlier statement, an organization calling itself the Caucasus Front had claimed direct responsibility for the attack. The Caucasus Front was set up a few months ago as part of a military reorganization initiated by Chechen separatist leader Abdul-Khalim Sadulayev. It reportedly includes Kabardino-Balkaria and other North Caucasus republics.

A militant group based in Kabardino-Balkaria and known as Yarmuk has admitted in a third statement carried by Kavkaz Center to taking part in the Nalchik raid as a unit of the Caucasus Front.

It remains questionable, however, whether the assault was as carefully planned as these statements seem to indicate.

In the days that followed the attacks, Ingush-based representatives of the Russian rights group Memorial went to Nalchik to interview dozens of eyewitnesses.

Although authorities still refuse to hand over the bodies of the 87 killed militants they have reportedly identified, Memorial says their information shows most of the attackers were from Kabardino-Balkaria and that many lived in the same Nalchik neighborhood.

The group says one Ingush, two Russians, and three Ossetians were found among the dead militants. All the others were either Kabards or Balkars.

Speaking with RFE/RL from Nazran in Ingushetia, Memorial researcher Yekaterina Sokiryanskaya said early findings suggests most of the raiders were wearing civilian clothes, lacked military training, and could hardly handle their weapons.

“Most of the attackers were young -- very young -- and they were not well-prepared for this kind of [military] operation," Sokiryanskaya said. "Many of them were students. Some were born into wealthy [Nalchik] families. They carried out those raids in small groups of five. In some places, there were larger groups. Many people told us that those who attacked the FSB [Federal Security Service] headquarters and the airport looked like professional fighters. They were dressed in camouflage and, clearly, were well-trained adults. [Unlike the others], this group managed to leave the city [with almost no losses].”

Basayev, in his statement, also hinted at the presence of two distinct groups of attackers. In particular, he said that “groups unknown to [the Chechen separatist leadership]” launched a separate assault at a gun shop in an attempt to obtain weapons. But all the other attacks, he suggested, were carried out under a single command.

But Sokiryanskaya said Nalchik residents still find it difficult to explain the purpose behind the attacks.

“One of the people we spoke to said it looked like an uprising," Sokiryanskaya said. "If that were the case, could it be that this group of trained fighters had come to incite unrest before withdrawing and leaving these inexperienced young men in a difficult position? In general, the attitude of the attackers is strange. It is as if they left their homes in broad daylight to attack those buildings that were defended by well-equipped, well-trained forces, whereas they themselves obviously lacked military training. It was clear they could not escape. They went out, started shooting and got killed -- that’s it. It's impossible to understand the purpose of this show of force. It is as if they were in such despair that they decided go out and die.”

Kabardino-Balkaria has been witnessing increasing violence in recent years. Analysts said the rise is explained by economic hardship, corruption, and a heavy-handed government campaign against young believers opposed to the state-controlled Spiritual Board of Muslims.

Sokiryanskaya said that despite Basaev’s claims of responsibility, the situation in Chechnya in fact no longer has much influence on regional developments.

“This armed underground movement is no longer controlled by people in Chechnya," Sokiryanskaya said. "It has its own network in all the North Caucasus republics and feeds on the specific problems of each of those republics. In addition, it enjoys massive support among local youths. This is something frightening.”

Arsen Kanokov appeared to agree. He is Kabardino-Balkaria’s new leader, who took over from outgoing Soviet-era president Valerii Kokov in September.

In comments made to Russian media after the Nalchik raid, Kanokov said his main priority would be to tackle rampant poverty and widespread unemployment. He also criticized Kokov’s campaign against alleged religious fundamentalism and pledged to reopen all unofficial mosques that his predecessor had ordered closed.

At the same time, however, Kabardino-Balkaria’s law-enforcement agencies have reportedly arrested dozens of alleged Islamic militants since the attack on Nalchik.

Regional observers believe the small republic of Kabardino-Balkaria is at a crossroads.

Sokiryanskaya said many are questioning whether Kanokov will be able to assert full control over the regional Interior Ministry. If he is, he could choose to restore dialogue between the government and Kabardino-Balkaria’s young Muslim dissidents. Otherwise, he might simply follow in his predecessor's footsteps.

If the latter proves the case, she said, Kabardino-Balkaria will become "a permanent hot spot and violence will spill over to other regions."

Nalchik In Pictures

Nalchik In Pictures

A slideshow look at the October 13-14 violence in Nalchik, capital of the Russian North Caucasus Republic of Kabardino-Balkaria.