- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 13, 2005

MOSCOW — Pitched street battles between Islamic militants and security forces killed dozens of people in the southern Russian city of Nalchik yesterday and stoked fears that Russia’s decade-old conflict in Chechnya is spreading through the volatile North Caucasus region.

Officials said at least 85 persons, including 61 militants, were killed and that militants still were holding hostages at a police station last night.

President Vladimir Putin imposed a total blockade on the city to prevent militants from slipping out and ordered security forces to shoot any armed resisters.

“The city has been taken under firm control. Not one car, not one train, not one bus will go past without being closely checked,” Deputy Interior Minister Alexander Chekalin said. “Now our main task is to find the bandits in the city, including their wounded.”

Chechen rebels took responsibility for the wave of attacks on government buildings in Nalchik, the 280,000-population capital of Kabardino-Balkaria, a largely Muslim republic not far from Chechnya.

The assault, which officials said was staged by 60 to 300 fighters, was the heaviest since militants staged a similar attack in another regional capital, Nazran, in the summer of 2004. That assault left 92 persons dead.

Experts said the scale of the assault was further evidence that violence linked with Islamic extremism is spilling over from war-ravaged Chechnya.

“Tensions are increasing across the region and this attack was practically inevitable,” said Alexei Malashenko, a specialist on the Caucasus with the Moscow Carnegie Center. He said the fact that the attack was well planned and involved dozens of gunmen challenged the Kremlin’s assertion that it has the region under control.

“This wasn’t a simple terrorist attack but a real military operation,” he said.

Deputy Interior Minister Andrei Novikov said late last night that 61 extremists were killed, some from Kabardino-Balkaria and some from other parts of the North Caucasus. Officials had earlier said that 12 civilians and 12 police officers were killed, and that 116 others were hospitalized.

Militants attacked at least eight facilities, including three police stations, the airport and buildings housing border guards, riot police, an anti-terrorism center and officials with the Federal Security Service, the former KGB.

Fighting raged for hours in various areas, with automatic-weapons fire and explosions resounding throughout the city and smoke rising from one of the main police buildings under attack.

Some schools were evacuated and local radio announcements urged residents to stay in their homes. Russian television showed footage of corpses lying in pools of blood in the streets of Nalchik and ambulances taking the wounded to hospitals.

Mr. Chekalin said the fighting began after police launched an operation to capture 10 suspected militants in a Nalchik suburb and that the attacks were aimed at diverting police. All 10 of the suspects were killed, he said.

Last night, Mr. Chekalin said militants holed up in two rooms at a police station were holding a small number of hostages and battling security forces, and that three attackers were putting up resistance at a souvenir shop.

Police and security forces were searching the rest of the city for militants who might be hiding or wounded, he said.

The Kavkaz Center Web site, commonly used for rebel statements, said it had received a message taking responsibility for the attacks on behalf of the Caucasus Front, which it said included members of Yarmuk, an extreme Islamic group based in Kabardino-Balkaria.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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