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, officials said yesterday.
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 in an overnight foray that began shortly before midnight on Monday, regional emergency officials said.
By late yesterday morning, after thousands of Russian anti-terrorist special forces officers and servicemen streamed into Nazran, most of the militants had retreated and the Russian military was engaged in a massive search operation aimed at choking off their exit. Some of the militants seized Nazran residents' cars to make their getaway, residents said.
Two militants were killed, Russian media reported. An AP reporter saw the body of one militant near a blockpost in the village of Yandare. There was no official comment about the fate of the other assailants, which officials had initially said numbered about 100. The ITAR-Tass news agency reported that police were fighting with fleeing militants in Galashki, in a forested area near the Chechen border, ITAR-Tass said.
Major General Ilya Shabalkin, spokesman for the Russian forces in Chechnya, blamed Chechen rebels for planning the attacks, but said the raids -- carried out by men armed with grenade- and rocket-launchers -- involved fighters from both Chechnya and Ingushetia, the Interfax-Military News Agency reported. Earlier, officials said some of the fighters shouted "Allahu akhbar" -- a rallying cry of Chechnya's separatist rebels as their insurgency comes under the influence of radical Islam.
Chechen Interior Minister Alu Alkhanov, the Kremlin-supported candidate in Chechnya's upcoming presidential elections, told the ITAR-Tass news agency that he believed Chechen rebel commander Shamil Basayev, who has been blamed for some of the most audacious attacks, was behind the foray.
Yakhya Khadziyev, spokesman for Ingushetia's Interior Ministry, said the 46 dead included 18 police officers and 28 civilians. He said that a military field hospital was delivered to Nazran and set up, a possible indication of the large scale of casualties expected.
Russian authorities sent in reinforcements shortly after dawn yesterday. The forces moved into Nazran through the border village of Chermen in neighboring North Ossetia, in a lengthy column of armored 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.
Russian TV broadcast footage of smoke-charred buildings and burned out cars and vans. Gray-colored smoke was still pouring from at least one of the brick buildings. Ingush President Murat Zyazikov spoke numerous times by telephone to Russian President Vladimir Putin to update him on the situation, ITAR-Tass reported.
Khadziyev said that 30 people were injured, although he warned that number could grow. Earlier, the Ingush catastrophic medical center said that 59 wounded people had been hospitalized 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," Aslan said.
Fighting from the 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.
There was heavy fighting in Karabulak, where militants attacked a border guard and customs post and a police station, and the assailants seized a police checkpoint in the village of Yandare, officials said.
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.
Officials said 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.
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