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Russia combs Caucasus city for militants

By Associated Press
Published October 15, 2005

NALCHIK, Russia - Russian security forces combed a city of shattered glass and bloodstains Friday, searching for militants amid fears they may have melted into the civilian population to regroup after fierce attacks that left at least 108 people dead.

Authorities said that all pockets of active fighting had been put down a day after the attacks, and President Vladimir Putin promised all such violence will be put down "hard and consistently," but the bloodshed underlined the spreading violence in the Caucasus region.

As officials announced successful operations to liquidate rebels on Friday, it became clear that security forces had rescued nearly 20 hostages in various offices around the southern Russian city of Nalchik - and killed dozens of militants.

The head of the regional government, Gennady Gubin, said Nalchik, a city of 235,000 people, was being searched for rebels, according to the Interfax news agency.

Chechen rebels have claimed involvement in Thursday's attacks on police and security facilities. The fighting in the Kabardino-Balkariya republic near Chechnya has raised fears that Islamic militants who have been fighting Russian forces for most of the past decade were opening a new front in the troubled Caucasus region.

The Nalchik attacks came amid a long-running regional campaign aimed at undermining nascent Islamic extremism. Human rights lawyers say the campaign has also affected innocent, peaceful young Muslims, alienating and offending them as they rediscover their Muslim heritage.

More than three dozen people - mostly men, mostly Muslim - have been caught up in the police dragnet looking for participants and conspirators in the assault.

Tensions are running high in Kabardino-Balkariya republic, where poverty is grinding, corruption is endemic and the violence stemming from nearby, war-wracked Chechnya is spilling over with increasing frequency.

The provincial president, Arsen Kanokov, blamed the attack on social conditions, which rebels have exploited to recruit and bolster their ranks.

"The population's low income and unemployment create the soil for religious extremists and other destructive forces to conduct an ideological war against us," Kanokov was quoted by Interfax as saying.

Bloodied bodies from Thursday's fighting still lay in the streets on Friday.

As security forces swept through the city, soldiers shot grenades through the barred window of a gift shop in the town center and used an armored personnel carrier to smash through the shop wall to save two hostages. Three militants were killed there, Deputy Prosecutor General Vladimir Kolesnikov said.

Authorities elsewhere rescued four police officers from gunmen who had taken them along in a van in a getaway attempt, Deputy Interior Minister Andrei Novikov said. The militants were killed.

At least 108 people, including 72 attackers, were killed in this week's fighting, according to a tally of accounts by officials, news reports and an Associated Press reporter. Twenty-four law enforcement officers were killed and 51 were wounded, Novikov said.

Amid conflicting casualty tolls, the regional department of the Emergency Situations Ministry said 18 civilians had been killed and 139 wounded, ministry duty officer Sergei Petrov said. Other reports had put the number of civilian dead at 12.

[Last modified October 15, 2005, 01:16:10]


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