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Kabardino-Balkaria: Dozens Reported Killed In Nalchik Fighting

By Jean-Christophe Peuch

Officials in the southern Russian republic of Kabardino-Balkaria say heavy fighting between security forces and alleged radical Islamic militants erupted on Thursday in the regional capital Nalchik. Kabardino-Balkaria's new president, Arsen Kanokov, says about 50 militants and 12 civilians have been killed in the fighting.

Prague, 13 October 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Kabardino-Balkaria’s security officials say the first shoot-outs erupted overnight in a Nalchik suburb area identified as Belaya Balka, or White Ravine.

The fighting then spread to other areas of the republic’s main city. RFE/RL’s Russian Service correspondent in the North Caucasus, Yurii Bagrov, reported from Vladikavkaz, in neighboring North Ossetia, that he talked to fellow journalists in Nalchik early on the morning of 13 October.

“As my colleagues told me, the fighting erupted overnight on the outskirts of Nalchik," Bagrov reported. "Someone had called the police to tell them he had spotted some 10 armed individuals moving around in Belaya Balka. Police officers sent to the area [to check] were ambushed. Early this morning, the shooting spread to various Nalchik areas. The regional headquarters of the [federal] Interior and security ministries, as well as police buildings, were attacked.”

Subsequent armed assaults were reported against the regional army recruitment center, the drugs-control office, and the Interior Ministry’s anti-religious extremism department.

Russia media quote security officials as saying between 150 and 300 militants operating in separate groups took part in the coordinated attacks. The nationality of the militants was not immediately clear.

Kozak On The Scene

Dmitrii Kozak, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s envoy to the Southern Federal District, has reportedly arrived in Nalchik from Rostov-on-Don.

Kabardino-Balkaria’s President Arsen Kanokov, who succeeded Valerii Kokov last month, told Russia’s ITAR-TASS news agency some 50 militants and 12 civilians were killed in the fighting. Kanokov said another 50 people were wounded. He gave no further details.

Neither the death count nor the number of militants engaged in the fighting could be independently verified.

RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service correspondent Valerii Khatazhukov reported from the center of Nalchik around noon local time.

“I’m standing on Lenin Avenue, at the intersection with the Kuliyev Street," Khatazhukov reported. "There is a car there with a dead militant. He is clad in a black uniform. His head is lying on the ground. On the other side of the street, there is another body. People say he’s another militant. Further down the street, I can see soldiers dragging away a half-naked man. People say he’s also a militant.”

In a report broadcast on Russia’s state-owned Radio Mayak, ITAR-TASS correspondent Marina Chernyshova says she saw black smoke hovering above one of the police stations.

Security forces have cordoned off the city center and residents are reportedly trying to leave the area.

Bagrov said police reinforcements are heading toward Nalchik. "Kabardino-Balkaria’s borders with neighboring republics, including North Ossetia, are blocked," he said. "Interior Ministry and other security reinforcements are currently being sent to Kabardino-Balkaria from North Ossetia.”

Tensions Running High

Tensions in Kabardino-Balkaria and other North Caucasus republics have been running high for months, with security operations and militant attacks being reported on a regular basis.

In June of last year, coordinated militant attacks similar to those in Nalchik decimated the top leadership of the Interior Ministry and the prosecutor's office in Ingushetia, a republic that borders Chechnya to the west.

Authorities in Kabardino-Balkaria have blamed most of the recent attacks in the republic on an alleged radical Islamic group called Yarmuk. That name may refer to a 7th-century battle, which saw Arab forces routing a Byzantine army.

Yarmuk’s purported founder, a young ethnic Balkar known as Muslim Ataev, was killed in a police operation last January. Security officials say Ataev had fought in Chechnya under separatist field commander Ruslan Gelaev.

Kabardino-Balkaria’s Interior Ministry says some 20 underground religious groups are operating in the republic, allegedly spreading Islamic fundamentalism among schoolchildren and university students.

Human rights groups in turn say young believers who do not adhere to official religious guidelines handed down by the Spiritual Board of Muslims are being harassed by authorities. The republic's secular leadership recently closed all but of Nalchik’s mosques. The remaining mosque is tightly controlled by the Spiritual Board.

Kabardino-Balkaria is a predominantly Muslim republic of less than 900,000 people. About half of its population is made of Kabards.

Russians are the second-largest ethnic group, comprising nearly one-third of the population. Turkic-speaking Balkars represent another 10 percent.

Copyright (c) 2005. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

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