Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Counting the Cost of Nalchik's 24-Hour War

As city residents still reel at the shock of a day of violence, some voice fears of longer-term instability.
By Muhammed Makoyev

The fighting may be over, but Nalchik is a city in trauma. A day after armed men launched multiple raids across the Kabardino-Balkar capital, there were still bodies lying in the streets and the city remained encircled by police roadblocks.

On October 14, a day after the fighting broke out, security forces announced that they had suppressed the last resistance from the insurgents, whose precise identity remains unclear.

But the mood here remains jumpy. Many people are convinced that large numbers of attackers have evaded capture.

"How can it be calm here if so many of the gunmen remain in the hills and forests around Nalchik?" said Margarita Kazakova, who lives in the city. "Eighty of them were killed, some more were captured, but that's far from the total number who were going round town armed with automatic rifles yesterday.

"Personally, I'm not going to risk going out at night for some time yet."

During the day, there were few people than usual on the streets, as people stayed home rather than risk the journey to work. Schools, colleges and kindergartens stayed closed. Those who did venture out had big trouble getting to work as public transport was working poorly and on some routes not at all.

The shops rapidly emptied of bread as people stocked up in anticipation of more trouble.

As night fell, the city streets emptied. There were still roadblocks at all the entry points into Nalchik, manned by police and interior ministry troops who were carefully checking vehicles going in both directions to stop any militants trying to sneak past.

SECURITY FORCES TARGETED

Since there were still corpses lying in the street a day after the bulk of the fighting died down, casualty figures are likely to change. A Russian official says 72 gunmen and 24 policemen died, while another official has said 12 civilians were also killed.

The events which produced such bloodshed began at around nine in the morning on October 13, when several groups of armed men mounted simultaneous attacks on offices belonging to various law-enforcement agencies. The pattern seemed to involve a series of cars each containing four of five gunmen which drove up to the target buildings, which the occupants would then blast with automatic weapons and grenade-launchers.

The targets included the Interior Ministry of Kabardino-Balkaria, the Federal Security Service, FSB, the Counter-Terrorism Centre, the penal institutions directorate, and various police premises.

The attackers smashed in the entrance of the interior ministry, and threw grenades at Police Station No. 1, blowing up a few cars parked outside in the process.

Elsewhere, they attacked the FSB headquarters, the Counter-Terrorism Centre, and Police Station No. 2, all of which are located where Nogmov Street meets Lenin Avenue in the city centre.

THREE LENGTHY SIEGES

Across the road from the FSB building, gunmen burst into the Souvenirs shop and took a number of people hostage.

More civilians were seized at the prisons directorate on Gazovaya Street, and there was a third hostage-taking when gunmen overran Police Station No. 3 on Kabardinskaya Street and barricaded themselves in together with several captured policemen.

These three incidents developed into sieges lasting at least 24 hours.

The gunmen involved in other attacks were either captured or killed, or else managed to escape into the hills.

Kabardino-Balkaria's interior minister, Khachim Shogenov, negotiated by phone with the hostage-takers at the police station through the rest of the day and night. He successfully persuaded them to free the women and children held inside the building.

The following morning, some of the attackers agreed to come out together with four hostages and be driven away in a Gazelle van. The vehicle set off towards the city centre, but the driver appeared to lose control and crashed into a tree by the roadside. At this point the police escorting the vehicle moved in and overpowered the gunmen, freeing all four hostages.

Back at the police station, a specialised unit got in through a first-floor window and ended the siege. At least ten hostage-takers were killed, as were three policemen. Nine policemen who had succeeded in barricading themselves off on the floor above the hostage incident came out alive.

At roughly the same time, about nine in the morning, anti-terror units moved in to end the siege of the Souvenirs shop. Three of them crept up to the window, broke the glass and threw in some kind of gas. Security forces then directed heavy gunfire at the building and a BTR armoured car smashed its way in through a wall. Police say neither of the two hostages inside suffered more than superficial injuries.

The longest siege took place at the prisons directorate, where two attempts to storm the building ended in failure. The attackers were holed up in a basement together with their hostages.

This operation only ended at about two in the afternoon of October 14. Twelve insurgents were killed and nine hostages freed.

With that, the interior ministry announced that the final pocket of resistance had been crushed and the "active phase of operations" had ended.

DEATH TOLL PUT AT CLOSE TO 100

Andrei Novikov, Russia's deputy interior minister, gave a briefing in Nalchik at which he released some casualty figures. He said 72 militants had been killed and 31 arrested, while the security forces had lost 24 members with another 51 injured.

However, Novikov omitted any mention of civilian casualties. The day before, deputy prosecutor general Vladimir Kolesnikov had announced that 12 civilians had been killed in the attacks. Other sources suggest that another 70 were injured.

Novikov announced that the dead included one Iless Gorchkhanov, an Ingush believed to be one of the ringleaders in the attacks. He did not say anything about Anzor Astemirov, reportedly another leading figure in the attacks.

According to Novikov, there were about 100 gunmen involved in the attacks and they were well supplied with arms and explosives. They were of various ethnicities, but the bulk of them were in fact residents of Kabardino-Balkaria rather than outsiders.

NALCHIK RESIDENTS TRY TO PICK UP THE PIECES

People here remain in shock at how quickly an ordinary city getting ready for a normal working weekday was turned into a battleground, and at the sheer intensity of the fighting they witnessed.

"It was a real war, the kind where you don't know friend from foe," recalled high-school teacher Oxana Irigova. "You see, most of the gunmen had the same camouflage gear that the police wear. They say the bandits had put on red armbands, but you'd hardly be looking out for that what with all the bullets whizzing past you." Even if they believe that the immediate threat of renewed violence has receded, many residents now fear for the longer-term future of Kabardino-Balkaria.

"I fear that this may become a recurring event for us in Nalchik, even though I wouldn't wish such a thing on my worst enemy," said Boris Marshenkulov. "Now the bandits will probably seek vengeance for the people they've lost, and then our republic will turn into a second Dagestan – or God forbid, another Chechnya."

Murat Khamgokov, a local businessman, shares this pessimistic view, saying, "This attack was the last straw for me. I didn’t like the situation here in the republic anyway, but after this slaughter I'm definitely getting out of here. Probably Moscow, but somewhere abroad would be even better."

Many of the people interviewed by IWPR said the attacks had created a great deal of hostility towards the attackers, especially among the young.

"I was in a taxi with some young lads yesterday and they spent the whole time talking about how they had to unite to combat the religious plague of Wahhabism," said one man, Azamat Kuchukov, using a term applied loosely here to any Islamic fundamentalist. "They were quite serious about it, talking about what needed to be done to rid the republic of these fanatics so that not a trace of them is left."

Muhammed Makoyev is a pseudonym used by a journalist in Nalchik.

More IWPR's Global Voices