Thursday, October 20, 2005

Quagmire

EDM analyst Andrei Smirnov on how Kabardino-Balkaria faces a long-term guerrilla war:
Russian authorities are hailing their handling of the October 13 rebel attack on Nalchik, the capital of the Caucasian republic of Kabardino-Balkaria, as a "great success." Russian Minister of Internal Affairs Rashid Nurgaliev called the attack an "act of desperation" on the part of the insurgents. "The bandit underground had to step up their activity because we had been following close on their heels" (ORT-TV, October 17).

Russian officials have repeatedly stressed that the rebels failed to seize any of the military and police facilities they attacked. According to the official account, the rebels lost 91 gunmen and did not capture any weapons from the police or army. Moreover, the official version insists that few militants escaped because most were killed or arrested inside Nalchik.

On October 15 Russian President Vladimir Putin met with top security officials, including Nurgaliev, Minister of Defense Sergei Ivanov, Valentin Korabelnikov, chief of Military Intelligence, and Alexander Bragin, deputy chief of the Federal Security Service (FSB) (NTV, October 15). Putin said, "Our actions should be adequate to all threats of the bandits to our country." He promised "to act with the same toughness and success as this time" in future (RIA-Novosti, October 15).

Despite these victorious statements, the meeting was held in Putin's office behind closed doors, suggesting that the authorities are concealing something from the public. Clearly Putin is not satisfied with the FSB, since he invited the deputy chief -- not the director -- of Russian counter-intelligence to the Kremlin. Many observers believe that FSB Chief Nikolai Patrushev is close to resigning.

Even the official, censored information coming from Nalchik contradicts the Kremlin's version of events. According to eyewitnesses, the rebels attacked more than 15 police and military facilities in Nalchik and -- contrary to official claims -- seized at least two facilities: the Main Corrections Department and Police Precinct #3. Nalchik's Police Precinct #2 and the Anti-Terrorist Center were completely destroyed during the attack. In addition, attackers occupied parts of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and local FSB headquarters.

Internal Affairs Minister Nurgaliev told a special session of the State Duma convened to discuss events in Nalchik that the militants had arrived in the city in 19 cars and minibuses (gazeta.ru, October 19). But the official report issued on the morning of October 13 said that the rebels were seizing cars to escape from the city. Many suspect that the extra vehicles were needed to haul away captured weapons, an explanation strongly denied by officials.

There was also no law-enforcement coordination during the first hours of fighting. Nobody knew what was happening. Local officials told journalists they had no information, admitting, "There is absolute chaos in Nalchik." Policemen were so terrified that they jumped from windows to escape the assault (Moskovsky komsomolets, October 15).

The militants insist that most of their fighters eluded capture and escaped from the city. According to a statement by Chechen warlord Shamil Basaev, who claimed to have managed the attack, most of the gunmen had left the city by 11:15 am (Kavkazcenter, October 16). Regnum reports that at least 50 militants went southward through Khasanya village. Kavkazsky Uzel reported that some rebels left Nalchik the day after the attack, when officials claimed to have 50 checkpoints in place. Marziat Kholaeva, a resident of Khasanya, reported seeing five armed men passing through the village to the mountains on October 14. They shot one of their prisoners, a policeman, and abandoned another wounded hostage (Kavkazsky Uzel, October 15).

There are also doubts about the official casualty figures. Many believe that the 91 deaths quoted by the Kremlin include many civilians killed in the crossfire. Fatima Tlisova, a local Associated Press correspondent, reports that a list has been compiled of 40 missing persons. On October 13, all the people named on the list left their homes but never returned. Their relatives, as well as the relatives of the dead rebels, gather every day near the city's morgue to find out more about the fate of their loved ones. Russian law states that bodies of terrorists are not to be returned to their families, and some in the crowd said that their relatives had been deliberately classified as participants in the militant raid to prevent the release of their corpse.

Basaev claims that 217 rebels participated in the attack, with about 41 insurgents killed. The militants themselves came from Kabardino-Balkaria and neighboring regions like Karachaevo-Cherkessia, North Ossetia, Ingushetia, and Krasnodar.

With few causalities, the rebels will be able to continue their attacks in Kabardino-Balkaria. In fact, guerilla warfare has already started in the republic. On October 17, Camagat, the website of the rebels from Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachaevo-Cherkessia, reported fierce fighting between insurgents and federal troops near Kenzhe village, in the outskirts of Nalchik. The next day the authorities admitted that a special operation was underway near Kenzhe to search for fighters who use the settlement as a base (Interfax, October 18). Kavkazsky Uzel reported that gunmen attacked the police special-task unit (OMON) headquarters in Iskozh district of Nalchik on October 17. The same day NTV said that there was an attack on a police checkpoint manned by troops from Rostov-on-Don, a detachment sent to Nalchik to reinforce local troops (NTV, October 18). On October 18, Camagat again reported clashes in Nalchik and Baksan, a village in the north of the republic. The website also said that policemen had taken several female hostages in the Balkar village of Bilim in Elbrus mountain district. They want to exchange the women for the husbands.

It is difficult to say whether a long-term guerilla war by Kabardinian insurgents will undermine the authorities, but the operation seems to be quit real. Putin may soon find himself in another quagmire like the ongoing one in Chechnya.
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