- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 23, 2004

CHERMEN, Russia — Thousands of troops poured into a southern Russian city yesterday, chasing Chechen rebels who set fire to police and government buildings in coordinated attacks that killed at least 57 persons, officials said.

The dead included 47 law-enforcement officers or officials, the Itar-Tass news agency reported, citing Beslan Khamkoyev, acting interior minister of the republic of Ingushetia. A U.N. humanitarian worker was among the dead, authorities said, as were three high-ranking regional officials.

Yesterday, Russian President Vladimir Putin flew to Ingushetia where he told its president, Murat Zyazkikov, that the search for the attackers must go on “as long as necessary.”

The attacks underscored the Russian military’s failure to defeat separatists in neighboring Chechnya after five years of fighting, and raised new fears of spreading violence in southern Russia.

Many Chechen fighters trained and fought with the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Russia says many Arabs and other foreigners fight side by side with the Chechen rebels.

Mr. Putin ordered authorities “to find and destroy” the militants, whose raid came amid preparations for an August election to replace Kremlin-backed Chechen President Akhmad Kadyrov, killed last month in a bombing. Mr. Kadyrov’s death was seen as a significant blow to Mr. Putin’s efforts to bring some stability to Chechnya.

Shortly before midnight Monday, about 100 fighters armed with grenades and rocket launchers seized the regional Interior Ministry in Nazran, the largest city in Ingushetia, and attacked border guard posts there. They also attacked posts in the villages of Karabulak and Yandare, near the border with Chechnya, regional emergency officials said.

Authorities sent in reinforcements shortly after dawn, with a long column of armored personnel carriers, trucks and troops moving into Nazran through the border village of Chermen in North Ossetia.

By midmorning, most of the militants had fled into forests on the border of Ingushetia and Chechnya, authorities said.

In Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan, three militants were killed by Russian special forces, regional authorities reported.

Chechnya’s Interior Minister Alu Alkhanov told Itar-Tass that he believed Shamil Basayev, a Chechen rebel commander blamed for some of the attacks, was behind the violence.

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