Almost 20 years to the day since then Russian President Boris Yeltsin sent Russian troops into Chechnya to "restore constitutional order," Chechen militants have launched a major operation in Grozny.
Russian news agencies report that at least seven fighters in three vehicles opened fire on road traffic police near the Heart of Chechnya mosque in the city center, killing up to five of them, before barricading themselves into the nine-story central press building. The insurgency website Kavkazcenter quoted an unnamed source at a Grozny hospital as implying that the number of dead and wounded was higher.
In a two minute video-clip posted on YouTube, an unidentified participant in the fighting said "many" fighters entered the city, where they have "destroyed many vehicles and armored columns" and seized more weaponry than they could carry away with them. The website Kavkaz-Uzel later reported receiving an SMS message citing unconfirmed rumors that as many as 400 militants had entered Grozny.
The speaker said the suicide operation was undertaken at the command of Amir Khamzat (Aslan Byutukayev), commander of the Chechen insurgency wing, in retaliation for the suffering and humiliation inflicted on Chechen women by the security forces subordinate to Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov. He said the group has pledged loyalty to Abu-Mukhammad (Aliaskhab Kebekov), the Avar theologian chosen earlier this year to succeed Doku Umarov as head of the Caucasus Emirate, which Umarov proclaimed in late 2007.
Kadyrov was quoted as saying in an Instagram post that the shooting near the press building has died down and six fighters in the building are dead. As of 9 a.m. local time, Chechen security personnel also said that the operation to regain control of the press building has entered "the final phase."
Ninety minutes later, the National Antiterrorism Committee reported that "all" the fighters within the press building were dead, but did not specify how many.
Kadyrov initially dismissed as “absolutely untrue” rumors that fighting was underway elsewhere in the city. Several hours later, however, he was quoted as saying that a second group of fighters was surrounded in one of the city’s schools.
Kadyrov also suggested the attackers may have come from outside Chechnya: he claimed the insurgency wing in Chechnya is no longer capable of launching a large-scale attack.
Security personnel in Grozny, however, say the fighters came from Shalazhi in the Urus Martan district south-west of the capital. They say the attackers, who were wearing security service uniforms, summoned three taxis, neutralized the drivers, and then used the vehicles to drive to Grozny.
WATCH: Buildings Burn After Fighting In Grozny
The Chechen insurgents resorted to the same tactics in October 2010, when a group of three fighters drove up to the Chechen parliament building in Grozny in a taxi, claiming to be a lawmaker's bodyguards. One immediately blew himself up to create a diversion, while the other two entered the building and took hostage all deputies present, including speaker Dukvakha Abdurakhmanov.
The 2010 attack was masterminded by veteran fighter Aslambek Vadalov, of whom a fellow fighter observed that "he never loses his cool, even when you're in the forest, surrounded by the enemy, and you think there's no escape." The operation on December 4 also bears Vadalov's handwriting.
If the estimate of several hundred fighters in Grozny is even approximately accurate, then the question arises: was the failure of the Caucasus Emirate fighters to target the Sochi Winter Olympics in February not after all, as many inferred, a reflection of their weakness? Were they instead preparing for this assault?
And was today the "specific day" that Vadalov’s fellow commander Makhran Saidov said several months ago the Chechen insurgency wing was preparing for?
-- Liz Fuller