Image: Civilians look at damaged armored personnel carrier.
AFP - Getty Images
Civilians look at a damaged armored personnel carrier in the Ingush city of Nazran, on Tuesday, after armed clashes erupted near Russia's separatist republic of Chechnya.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 6/23/2004 8:35:42 AM ET 2004-06-23T12:35:42

A nighttime attack this week by Chechen rebels, who set fire to police and government buildings, killed 92 people in the Russian republic of Ingushetia and wounded 120, the Russian ITAR-Tass news agency reported Wednesday, citing the regional government.

ITAR-Tass said 67 of the dead were members of law enforcement agencies.

The regional branch of Russia’s Federal Security Service received information about the movements of an armed group about 30 minutes before the start of attacks late Monday night, ITAR-Tass quoted the deputy of the regional FSB branch, Andrei Konin, as saying.

“But we did not expect such breadth — simultaneous attacks on 15 sites,” Konin was quoted as saying.

Flags flew at half-staff and all entertainment television programs in Ingushetia were canceled, as a three-day mourning period began Wednesday.

Late Tuesday, 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.” In remarks shown on Russian television, Putin thanked those who fought off the attackers and “did not allow the bandits to achieve their goals.”

The attacks underscore 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-Qaida in Afghanistan. Russia says many Arabs and other foreigners fight side-by-side with the Chechen rebels.

The Chechen militants are also said to receive support from al-Qaida and have strong contacts with the Wahhabi Muslim sect of Saudi Arabia, birthplace of al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden. The deeply fundamental beliefs of Wahhabism are believed to be bin Laden’s spiritual foundation.

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. Kadyrov’s death was seen as a significant blow to Putin’s efforts to bring some stability to Chechnya, devastated by two wars since the 1990s.

Rebels seize Interior Ministry
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.

Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev told Putin that 15 officers from the Ingush Interior Ministry’s central building defended it for nearly six hours in a bid to keep rebels from entering the jail cells and freeing captives, Interfax reported.

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 neighboring North Ossetia.

By midmorning, most of the militants had fled into forests on the border of Ingushetia and Chechnya, authorities said. Zyazikov told Interfax a large number of weapons and ammunition were missing from police depots.

Russian media reported only two militant deaths. An Associated Press reporter also saw the body of one militant near Yandare.

At least one group of retreating rebels was caught by police near the Chechen border, and a firefight ensued, said Yakhya Khadziyev, spokesman for Ingushetia’s Interior Ministry.

In Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan that borders Chechnya to the north and east, three militants were killed by Russian special forces after an hours-long firefight, regional authorities reported.

Maj. Gen. Ilya Shabalkin, spokesman for the Russian forces in Chechnya, blamed Chechen rebels for planning the attacks, but said the raids were carried out by fighters recruited from both Chechnya and Ingushetia.

“The attacks were clearly saber rattling, aimed to demonstrate the rebels’ effectiveness to attract funding from foreign terrorist networks,” he said, according to the Interfax-Military News Agency.

Russian TV broadcast image of smoke-charred and burning buildings and burned-out vehicles.

The United Nations office in Russia said humanitarian worker, Magomed Getagazov, was killed when caught in the crossfire while returning home from work in Nazran.

Rebels plan new offensives
Chechnya’s Interior Minister Alu Alkhanov told ITAR-Tass that he believed Shamil Basayev, a Chechen rebel commander blamed for some of the most audacious attacks, was behind the violence. The Kremlin backs Alkhanov in Chechnya’s upcoming elections.

Chechnya’s separatist President Aslan Maskhadov warned recently that insurgents were preparing to undertake new offensives.

Russia’s NTV television showed footage of an encounter with some of the presumed attackers, wearing masks and speaking accented Russian, at a border crossing with North Ossetia. One of the attackers, carrying an automatic weapon, identified the group as “the Martyr’s Brigade,” NTV reported. The man added, “We have shot everyone here. Go and announce that.”

Acting Ingush Interior Minister Abukar Kostoyev, the health minister and a deputy interior minister were killed in the fighting, officials said. ITAR-Tass said Nazran city prosecutor Mukharbek Buzurtanov and Nazran district prosecutor Bilan Oziyev were also killed.

Russian forces withdrew from Chechnya in 1996 after a devastating 20-month war against separatists that left the region with de facto independence. They returned in September 1999, after rebel incursions into a neighboring region and after deadly apartment-building bombings in Moscow and other cities were blamed on the militants.

Although Chechnya is a largely Muslim region in overwhelmingly Christian Russia, the first of Chechnya’s two wars was an essentially secular conflict. After Russian troops pulled out when Chechen rebels fought them to a standstill, the separatists increasingly took on a specifically Islamic mantle.

The raid in Ingushetia came amid preparations for an August election in Chechnya to replace Kremlin-backed Chechen President Akhmad Kadyrov, killed last month in a bomb attack. Kadyrov's death was seen as a significant blow to Putin's efforts to bring some stability to warring Chechnya.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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