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Chechnyan Insurgents Attack Police in Coordinated Strike

By C.J. Chivers
THE NEW YORK TIMES


NALCHIK, RUSSIA

Islamic insurgents attacked at least nine police and security buildings on Thursday in this southern Russian city in coordinated daylight raids, witnesses and the authorities said, further spreading Russia’s battles beyond its roots in the breakaway republic of Chechnya. Russian officials said at least 85 people died, most of them insurgents.

One band of the masked gunmen overwhelmed a police station and captured hostages, including police officers, and held them into the night. The authorities said they had entered negotiations to try to set the hostages free. Two gun shops were also sacked.

Russian officials cautioned that the military operation was continuing and the death count could rise. According to initial tallies, 12 police officers and 12 civilians were among those killed.

There were also signs of a planned Russian sweep of areas suspected to hold more gunmen, as a senior government official announced that President Vladimir V. Putin had told the authorities to block the routes in and out of the city, and ordered the destruction of any insurgents who resist. A local radio station called on residents to stay in their homes.

“The president has ordered us to keep every militant within Nalchik and to eliminate any armed person resisting detention,” said First Deputy Interior Minister Alexander Chekalin. “The order of the president will be fulfilled.”

Armored vehicles and a heavy presence of Russian troops set up checkpoints. The city, which was almost fully under the authorities’ control by late afternoon, fell mostly quiet at night.

The attacks, in Russia’s Caucasus region, took place in a city that had remained free until now of the worst violence that has stalked southwestern Russia since war began in nearby Chechnya in 1994, and cast fresh doubts on the Kremlin’s insistence that the region has been stabilizing and returning to its control. Violence this year had already flared anew in Dagestan, where insurgents have been killing police officers and soldiers with near regularity, and last year guerrillas and terrorists conducted large operations in the nearby republics of Ingushetia and North Ossetia, where 331 people were killed in the school siege in Beslan.

The fresh attacks sent ripples through the region. The president of the Kremlin-installed government in Chechnya announced that his local forces had been put on alert, as did leaders in Ingushetia. Ramzan Kadyrov, the leader of an irregular force of former Chechens guerrillas that is at least publicly loyal to Moscow, offered to send his fighters to Nalchik’s aid.

Nalchik itself, a city of about 275,000, is the capital of the internal Russian republic of Kabardino-Balkaria, crowded with reinforcements, including special Russian army units. Late on Thursday night convoys of trucks carrying soldiers and an armored personnel carrier were also visible on the roads north of the city, heading toward it. Although it was not immediately evident who was responsible for the attacks, a Web site that often carries messages from Chechen terrorist Shamil Basayev, who planned the school siege in Beslan, said the attackers were Islamic fighters aligned with Chechen separatists.