Heavily-armed militants launched near-simultaneous overnight attacks against police headquarters, border guard stations and other government offices in Ingushetia, a Russian region bordering warring Chechnya, killing 46 people including three high-ranking regional officials.
The fighters seized the Interior Ministry in Nazran, the largest city in Ingushetia, and attacked the border guards’ headquarters there as well as in two villages near the border with Chechnya shortly before midnight, regional emergency officials said.
An official from the Ingush Interior Ministry said it was not immediately clear who the attackers were, but said some of them were shouting “Allahu akhbar” – a frequent rallying cry of Chechnya’s separatist rebels.
Chechnya’s Interior Minister Alu Alkhanov told the ITAR-Tass news agency that he believes Chechen rebel commander Shamil Basayev, who has been blamed for some of the most audacious attacks, was behind the foray into Ingushetia.
The 46 dead included 18 police officers and 28 civilians.
Ingush police estimated that up to 100 militants, armed with grenade- and rocket-launchers, were involved in the assaults, which sent gunfire booming across Nazran and other settlements for most of the night.
Shortly after dawn, thousands of Russian anti-terrorist special forces officers and servicemen streamed into Nazran, through the border village of Chermen in neighbouring North Ossetia, in a long column of armoured personnel carriers and army trucks.
Inside the city, firefighters fought blazes at the Interior Ministry and its weapons storehouse, as residents cowered in their homes.
“There are a lot of casualties, both from the law enforcement side and among civilians,” the Interfax news agency quoted Ingush President Murat Zyazikov as saying.
Khadziyev said that 30 people were injured, although he warned that number could grow.
Earlier, the Ingush medical centre said that 59 wounded people went to hospital and 16 of them had died. A firefighter who would reveal only his first name, Aslan, said he had seen more than 10 corpses on the streets of Nazran, and other witnesses reported seeing five more bodies on the outskirts of Nazran.
“Wherever we were, there were armed people, some in uniform, some not, and you didn’t know whose side they were on,” said Aslan.
Fighting from the nearly five-year-old Chechen war – the second war in a decade – has occasionally spilled into Ingushetia, highlighting the Russian military’s ineffectiveness against the rebels despite having heavier weapons and far superior manpower.
The last major incursion was in October 2002, when a band of fighters attacked Russian forces well inside the republic near the village of Galashki, killing 17 servicemen.
In an interview excerpted on Radio Liberty last week, Chechnya’s separatist president Aslan Maskhadov said that rebels were preparing to undertake new offensives.
“We are planning to change tactics. Before, we concentrated our efforts on acts of sabotage, but soon we are planning to start active military actions,” he said.
There was heavy fighting in Karabulak, where the militants attacked a border guard and customs post and a police station.
Acting Ingush Interior Minister Abukar Kostoyev was wounded in the first minutes of the fighting in Nazran and was taken to Vladikavkaz in North Ossetia, where he died, the Ingush Interior Ministry official said.
Ingush emergency officials said that the health minister and a deputy interior minister of Ingushetia had also been killed in the fighting in Nazran, while ITAR-Tass said Nazran city prosecutor Mukharbek Buzurtanov and Nazran district prosecutor Bilan Oziyev had died, as well.
Police at the Chermen checkpoint on the North Ossetian border said that a 10-vehicle Russian military convoy had been ambushed en route to Nazran, about a mile away. Three vehicles from the column were later seen returning to Vladikavkaz, the North Ossetian capital, carrying an unclear number of casualties.
As dawn broke, there was still sporadic shooting in Nazran and Karabulak, but the fighters were stealing away. Alleged militants stole some Nazran residents’ cars to make a getaway, and people were hiding in their houses, said a resident.