Chaos and Bloodshed in Nalchik

Eyewitness describes the day the residents of this peaceful city found themselves caught up in nightmarish scenes of urban warfare.

Chaos and Bloodshed in Nalchik

Eyewitness describes the day the residents of this peaceful city found themselves caught up in nightmarish scenes of urban warfare.

Thursday, 13 October, 2005

I saw unprecedented scenes of violence in Nalchik today as security forces fought running battles with militants across the city. As night fell, the worst of the shooting seemed to be over but many people I spoke to were anticipating a resumption in the violence.

At the time I dictated this piece down a phone line on the evening of October 13, hard facts about casualties and the number of insurgents involved were still hard to come by, and often conflicting.

This account is of events as I experienced them personally.

The first inkling I had that something was wrong was when I saw armed security forces blocking off the suburbs of Hasania and Belaya Rechka in Nalchik, the capital of Kabardino-Balkaria.

At around 8.30 in the morning, I heard bursts of automatic gunfire and grenades going off from the centrally-located part of town which is home to the Counter-Terrorism Centre, the Federal Security Service or FSB, and Police Station No. 2. The city market and a school are in the same area.

As I moved closer to this area, I was met by people running in panic – men, women and children. They were calling out but I couldn’t make out anything they said.

In this district, there was a serious firefight under way. There were virtually no police visible, the area had not been blocked off – it was total chaos.

Suddenly a little girl came running out of School No. 5, all trembling and tearstained. Some people with weapons had come and seized the school, she said. "My brother's still in there."

There were adults near the school as well, some of the women crying, others in hysterics.

But now a man called out that the kids had been evacuated to the city stadium, so everyone rushed off in that direction. When we got to the stadium, there were no children – but two bodies of men with weapons still lying beside them.

It turned out that the schoolchildren had been housed at a kindergarten a short way away. Parents called out names, but there was more panic as many of them couldn't immediately locate their kids because of the general atmosphere of confusion that reigned.

By now, smoke could be seen pouring out of the Counter-Terrorism Centre, and both it and the FSB building had seen some heavy fighting.

As I moved onto Nalchik's central square, I saw two bodies, once again of men, lying beside the monument that everyone round here just calls "Maria". Close by, on Ulitsa Lenina, Nalchik's main street, a car lay overturned. There was someone inside, but they showed no signs of life.

Outside the Rossia Hotel, also located on the square, there was a car with a wounded man lying under it calling out for help. There was someone else visible beneath a bus parked alongside the car.

Bizarrely, sitting inside this bus was an entire touring arts company from Abkhazia. It seems they were so surprised by the pace of events that they could neither get out of the bus nor drive off.

A military truck was coming back and forth ferrying the Abkhazians away in small groups. As it set off on another trip, I saw that it was also carrying away the body of a policeman, a member of the OMON special force.

In all, the militants are reported to have attacked 20 separate targets in and around Nalchik, including the FSB, the anti-terrorism unit, the interior ministry's central offices, the penal institutions directorate, three police stations, the city airport and a gunshop aptly named Arsenal.

From watching the attack on the Counter-Terrorism Centre and Police Station No. 2 which is right next to it, I would say there were about 30 insurgents involved in this one incident.

When this attack was over, some of the militants made their escape in commandeered minibuses.

I witnessed the assault on FSB headquarters from the start. It began when a vehicle drove up to the building and a man jumped out and threw a rucksack through a window. There was an explosion inside.

Then another man fired a grenade-launcher to take the heavy iron door off its hinges, and the insurgents swarmed in.

But after some time they came charging out again, and took up position in a building over the road, raking the FSB premises with gunfire.

I was able to see some of them. They were all clean-shaven – no Islamic-style beards – apart from one whose body I saw.

Some were dressed in military camouflage gear, and these ones also had masks over their faces.

But most were dressed in ordinary civilian clothes.

I later saw how Nalchik residents people recognised quite a lot of the militants lying dead. They were locals.

I personally saw 14 bodies in all. Nine had automatic weapons lying beside them. The remaining five could have been local civilians.

It is hard to say how many people were involved in the spate of coordinated attacks across the city. A source in the local law-enforcement agencies told me that they estimated about 500 militants took part. Official reports cite figures of between 60 and 200.

As security forces took on the militants, the scene was one of pure anarchy. I stood just 50 metres and watched as a BTR armoured car fired off round after round, with little regard for any civilians who might still be in the vicinity.

I also saw how the militants fired seemingly at random at passing cars, causing a number of casualties. They also hijacked the minibuses used as taxis here, ejecting the passengers first.

At about two in the afternoon, the heavy gunfire began to die down at last.

Security forces set up a cordon right round the city at a distance of about two kilometres from the centre. Russian President Vladimir Putin had ordered the place sealed off to prevent any of the rebels getting away.

Once again, there seemed to be little regard for the safety of any civilians left inside the ring.

No one is being allowed in or out of Nalchik. Residents are staying at home, realising there is little chance of escaping from the city.

The atmosphere remained tense into the evening. So jumpy was the mood that the merest rumour that someone had poisoned the water supply sparked panic buying, emptying the shops and roadside kiosks of mineral water and juice.

The streets were patrolled by men in uniform, mostly the local police but some soldiers too. In the afternoon, a local volunteer force appeared, consisting of men with hunting guns and white armbands.

When I filed this report, at least one confrontation was still ongoing.

A group of gunmen had seized a shop during the day, taking six women hostage. Negotiations ensued, and after a while they agreed to exchange two women for two bottles of water. A man volunteered to take the water in, and managed to come away with three of the hostages instead of two.

Now the men inside the shop are demanding an "escape corridor" in exchange for their remaining hostages.

The mood in the city is one of fear, as people hold their breath in expectation of more violence overnight or tomorrow, Friday. They say too many of the militants are still on the loose to rule this out.

Some remarkable scenes stand out from a day of confused images. In one incident, a gunman grabbed a young lad to use as a human shield, and continued firing at police. They shot him dead; the boy was injured.

Volunteers used their cars to ferry the injured away under fire. One ancient Zhiguli (Lada) was spattered in blood after making several trips.

Meanwhile, such was the chaos that other cars were driving into the crossfire. Once again, volunteers stepped in to wave them down and turn them back.

In one particularly nightmarish scene of heavy fighting, I watched as OMON police in bulletproof jackets lay flat on the ground as the bullets flew everywhere.

Then, out of the smoke and the noise walked a shabbily-dressed old man, walking stick in one hand, shopping bag in the other. You couldn't have made it up.

Fatima Tlisova is editor of the REGNUM news agency for the North Caucasus.

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