Militants ambushed a Chechen police convoy in the neighboring Russian region of Ingushetia on Saturday, killing 10 officers in one of the deadliest recent attacks in the volatile Caucasus.
The convoy of six vehicles came under grenade and machine gun fire at around 5:30GMT as it traveled along a forest road, security officials said. One vehicle burst into flames.
“Forty-five members of the Chechnya police force were returning from a joint special operation when their convoy came under fire. Ten were killed and 10 were wounded,” an Ingush security source said.
The Chechen police were in Ingushetia to conduct a joint special operation against militants with their Ingush colleagues close to the regional border, the source said.
The attack took place in the Sunzhensky district, east of Ingushetia’s main city Nazran.
“We believe the convoy fell into a well-planned ambush. It was fired upon from at least three different points with machine guns and grenade launchers,” an official Ingush source told the RIA Novosti news agency.
In a separate incident on Saturday, Nazran’s former police chief Vakha Aushev was wounded when unknown assailants opened fire on his car, the Ingush interior ministry spokesman said, quoted by RIA Novosti.
Concerns have grown in the last weeks about the stability of Ingushetia, one of Russia’s most violent regions, after Ingush President Yunus-Bek Yevkurov was seriously wounded in a car bombing on June 22.
The fact that Chechen police were Saturday’s victims was especially significant as Chechnyan President Ramzan Kadyrov has in recent weeks positioned himself as the strongman of the entire Caucasus region.
The attack is the deadliest single militant strike in the Caucasus since April when Russia abolished a decade-long anti-terror operation in Chechnya, which was the scene of two separatist wars since the collapse of communism.
Russia justified that move by saying stability had returned to Chechnya under Kadyrov. But analysts warned at the time that other regions of the Caucasus were still mired in unrest.
Islamist militants are battling pro-Kremlin authorities and Russian security forces in a low-level insurgency in the overwhelmingly Muslim regions of Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia.
The militants say they are trying to form an “Islamic Emirate” in the Caucasus. Kadyrov said he had given orders to be personally informed of all aspects of the investigation and characterized the attack as a final act of desperation by militants.
“All they can do to us today is crudely shoot us in the back from the bushes. And we are going to put an end to this,” he said, according to RIA Novosti.
“I officially declare that those who were guilty in the policemen’s deaths will rue this. They will all be identified and destroyed, and death will claim them very shortly,” Kadyrov pledged as quoted by Interfax.
“Sooner or later we will get them,” Interfax quoted Chechnyan Interior Minister Ruslan Alkhanov as saying. “Not a single crime will go unpunished.”
Officials said on Friday that Yevkurov had regained consciousness after almost two weeks in a coma. The Kremlin has appointed local prime minister Rashid Gaisanov as acting Ingush leader until Yevkurov recovers.
That move was widely seen as a bid by the Kremlin to halt political infighting in the Caucasus after both Kadyrov and former Ingush president Ruslan Aushev showed interest in filling the power vacuum.