- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 22, 2005

MOSCOW — Set in the foothills of towering Mount Elbrus, the Russian republic of Kabardino-Balkaria has for decades been a quiet resort area. Tourists would flock to the capital, Nalchik, to take in its famed mineral water, ski on the nearby slopes or tackle a climb of Elbrus, Russia’s highest peak.

Amid the mountainous beauty, visitors could easily forget they were only 75 miles from war-ravaged Chechnya.

No longer. Gunfire and explosions echoed through Nalchik last week as Chechen rebels and local Islamic militants launched a brazen attack on the city. After more than a day of fighting, at least 108 persons, including 72 attackers, were dead.

With the attack, Kabardino-Balkaria has become the latest region in Russia’s volatile North Caucasus engulfed in growing violent unrest linked with Islamic militancy and fueled by poverty, corruption and heavy-handed efforts to root out extremists. It challenged the Kremlin’s claims that the region is under control and raises the frightening prospect of a full-scale guerrilla war across the seven North Caucasus republics on Russia’s southern flank.

“The events in Nalchik demonstrated with new, shocking force the fragility of what the authorities … have been calling ‘peace,’” the newspaper Izvestia said in an editorial last week. “We have to admit: there is a war going on in the Caucasus.”

Russian security forces said they had wiped out the remnants of the small army that had made coordinated attacks early Thursday on eight police, state security and other buildings. Twenty-four law-enforcement officers were killed and 51 wounded in the attacks, officials said.

Civilian casualties were still not clear. One official said 18 had been killed and 139 wounded, another that 12 civilians had died. It was the worst attack in Russia since the Beslan school siege in neighboring North Ossetia in September 2004, which ended in the deaths of 331 persons, more than half of them children.

In his first public comments on the attack, President Vladimir Putin, who was elected in 2000 on promises to crack down on Chechen rebels, vowed tough measures against militants.

“We will act in a coordinated, effective, severe way — as we did this time — against anyone who takes up arms to threaten the lives and health of our citizens and the integrity of the Russian state,” he said.

In a statement to a rebel Web site, Chechen separatists claimed responsibility for the attack on behalf of the Caucasus Front. It said the group was part of the rebel forces who have fought a decade-long campaign for Chechnya’s independence and includes Yarmuk, a purported militant Islamic group based in Kabardino-Balkaria.

The attack was the first major assault since Abdul-Khalid Sadulayev took over as Chechen rebel leader after the death of Aslan Maskhadov in March, announcing he would strike further into Russia and wage war across the North Caucasus.

The president of Kabardino-Balkaria, Arsen Kanokov, told Interfax that close to 150 militants were involved in the attack and that most were local residents.

Alexei Malashenko, a specialist on the Caucasus at the Moscow Carnegie Center, said the fact that local militants were involved in the attack proves it was more than simple spillover from the war in Chechnya.

“The unrest in Kabardino-Balkaria has its own logic of development, separate from Chechnya,” he said. “Tensions had been increasing there for months before they exploded.”

Mr. Malashenko and other specialists said Kabardino-Balkaria is a prime example of how the Kremlin’s intense efforts to stamp out Islamic extremism in the North Caucasus are backfiring.

“There has been an extreme crackdown on Muslim believers in Kabardino-Balkaria and that is feeding the ranks of those willing to take up violence,” said political analyst Masha Lipman.

As in most of the North Caucasus, Kabardino-Balkaria’s population of 800,000 is predominantly Muslim. Local religious leaders complain that security forces target devout Muslims as “Wahhabis,” a common Russian term for Islamic extremists.

“Under the pretext of the fight against extremism, they are prepared to include among the Wahhabis anyone who wears a beard, a hijab or prays. … Our security forces believe that they know better than everyone, and don’t even want to consult with us,” Anas Pshikhachev, the chairman of Kabardino-Balkaria’s Spiritual Board of Muslims, told a Russian magazine this month.

In the summer of 2003, after radical Chechen rebel leader Shamil Basayev reportedly spent a month in Nalchik, police raided local mosques and rounded up hundreds of young men. Human rights groups purport that some were severely beaten and tortured. Some were reportedly forced to cut off their beards with rusty nails and some had crosses shaved in their scalps.

At the same time, endemic corruption, chronic poverty and youth unemployment rates of more than 70 percent have made it easier for militant groups to recruit frustrated and hopeless young men.

In late 2003, Yarmuk announced its foundation and declared war on the authorities in an Internet statement. Last December, the group was blamed for an attack on a border post that saw 10 gunmen kill four police officers and seize more than 250 weapons. A few weeks later, security forces killed Yarmuk’s leader, his wife and several other militants after a two-day siege in a Nalchik apartment.

In a memo leaked to the Russian press this summer, Mr. Putin’s envoy to the North Caucasus, Dmitry Kozak, made it clear the Kremlin is keenly aware of the dangerous breeding ground being created.

The memo dealt with growing violence in another North Caucasus republic, Dagestan, east of Chechnya. At least 42 police and 12 civilians have been killed in Dagestan this year in roadside bombings, ambushes and other attacks.

“The unsolved social, economic and political problems are now reaching a critical level,” the memo said. “Further ignoring the problems and attempts to drive them deep down by force could lead to an uncontrolled chain of events whose logical result will be open social, interethnic and religious conflicts.”

Mrs. Lipman said the Kremlin is still doing nothing to address the root causes of unrest in the region.

“While their security policy is creating a vicious circle of violence, their only social policy is pumping more money into the region, which is going into the hands of corrupt officials,” she said.

Especially worrying about the spread of violence to Kabardino-Balkaria is that it shows new levels of coordination among groups from various parts of the region, said Ivan Safranchuk, a senior fellow at the Center for Defense Information in Moscow. Not only did both Chechen fighters and local militants take part in the fighting, but Mr. Safranchuk also thinks an upsurge in violence in Dagestan over the summer was planned to divert authorities’ attention for the attack in Nalchik.

“This was a sophisticated operation, planned for months and with efforts in different parts of the North Caucasus,” he said.

“What we have now is already much worse than what we had when Putin came to power,” Mrs. Lipman said. “If all these groups come together in a violent and extremely aggressive force, then the whole North Caucasus will be on fire.”



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