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

Nalchik Rests Uneasy

Outwardly the city has returned to normal, but the heavy police presence shows the manhunt is continuing.
By Muhammed Makoyev

A week on from the rebel attack on Nalchik, the capital of Kabardino-Balkaria, the city remains tense but a sense of normality is returning despite the still tense atmosphere and a shootout between police and suspected rebels.


Police and the military continue to man checkpoints on all roads into the city as they continue their operation to track down insurgents who are assumed have gone to ground after evading capture on October 13.


But although Nalchik residents are still avoiding going out at night, they have gone back to work. Shops and cafes are open, public transport is working, and buildings damaged during the multiple attacks that targeted various security agencies are being patched up.


About 80 people attended a rally near the central concert hall to call for unity and “crush the creature named terrorism”.


Only the schools remain closed, after the education authorities brought forward the 10-day half-term holiday since many parents were keeping their children at home anyway.


"Of course we’re all afraid for our children after October 13. We’re afraid the nightmare will be repeated,” said Nalchik mother Zalina Apazheva. “It’s good they have declared a vacation… [but] there’s now a new problem - who should we leave our children with? We can’t let them walk the streets."


Things have remained generally calm since the street fighting of October 13 and the three hostage incidents resolved the following day.


But there was an outbreak of shooting early on October 18 when police patrol clashed with three gunmen. One of the latter was shot dead, and the other two fled into a nearby wood. Sounds of gunfire were heard from the area later that day, but there is no information about casualties or arrests.


In a separate police search operation the same day, officers sealed off the city’s Iskozh district, preventing residents from leaving even to go to work.


Police later said the man they killed in the first incident had taken part in the previous week’s violence. A Kalashnikov assault rifle and a pistol were found on him.


This find has produced a lead - the pistol’s serial number shows it was one of a batch stolen in a December 2004 raid on the local counter-narcotics office of the Federal Security Service, FSB. Four officers were killed in that attack. Some of the 250 firearms subsequently turned up in arms caches discovered in Kabardino-Balkaria and Ingushetia, but of more than 100 still unaccounted for, a number are believed to have been used in the Nalchik attacks.


Russian officials claim the same individuals were behind both attacks. Russia’s deputy chief prosecutor Vladimir Kolesnikov has named two men already wanted for last year’s arms theft - Anzor Astemirov and Iless Gorchkhanov - as the ringleaders of the Nalchik violence.


Officials have said Gorchkhanov, an ethnic Ingush, died last week while leading a team of rebels in an attack on the FSB headquarters, one of several such raids conducted almost simultaneously.


Initial news reports that Astemirov - who comes from Kabardino-Balkaria - had also been killed later proved untrue, and he is high on the police’s wanted list as they continue their manhunt.


Two suspected rebels were arrested elsewhere in Nalchik on October 17, and three more the following day. Police say this brings to 40 the number of people detained for the Nalchik attacks.


All the people detained so far are residents of Kabardino-Balkaria, aged 20 to 30, increasing suspicions that there was a strong local component in these attacks despite the automatic assumption that Chechen rebels were behind them.


Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev has assumed responsibility for the attacks, portraying them as the work of an organised military force. In a statement on the Chechen rebel website Kavkaz Centre, he claimed he coordinated the assault, but that it was led by one Seyfullah, styled “Amir” or commander of “the Kabardino-Balkarian sector of the Caucasian front”, with a force of 217 men.


A police source in Nalchik told IWPR on condition of anonymity that the multiple raids were less than convincing in tactical terms.


This source said most of the participants seem to have been unaware of the plan until the last minute. "They were given weapons shortly before the attack and told they had to shoot at policemen,” he said. “Many of them didn’t know how to handle firearms. They couldn’t even reload assault rifles correctly. There were some who dropped their weapons after the very first shots and made off.”


In his statement, Basayev appeared to acknowledge that the attack had been less effective than he had hoped, claiming that the Russian security forces had already got wind of it but that the insurgents decided to press on regardless with their operation, codenamed “Victory or Paradise”.


The interior ministry of Kabardino-Balkaria is now saying that 92 rebel fighters were killed on October 13-14. The number of security force members killed is now put at 26, as the bodies of two men in plain clothes were found to be those of policemen. Civilian deaths are put at around 10.


Relatives of some of the dead gunmen have mounted protests outside the government buildings to demand their bodies back for burial according to the Muslim rite.


City morgue officials say they are holding 85 bodies of gunmen, of which 56 have already been identified.


Russian deputy chief prosecutor Nikolai Shepel has said the remains will not be handed over to the families. Under Russian law, the bodies of terrorists are not released.


"Why won’t they understand that if they don’t give us the bodies of our sons, they will make us and our friends and relatives even angrier," said one mother. "Do they want another incident of this kind? Wasn’t it the authorities who drove them to this by detaining them constantly, taking them to police stations, and torturing them?"


Kabardino-Balkarian president Arsen Kanokov, whose residence is one of the buildings targeted by the protesters, has indicated he might soften the tough line on handing over bodies when it came to “those who were used as cannon fodder".


“It is possible to act humanely in order to prevent cruelty giving rise to cruelty," he said in an interview.


As city residents try to resume normal life, nerves remain taut. This week, when rumours spread that gunmen had stormed a shop and were hiding out in the cellar of an apartment block, the interior ministry had to appeal to members of the public not to believe everything they heard.


A police search of the area concerned revealed nothing.


Public servant Aslan Bogotov found himself briefly caught up in one of the October 17 police operations when he went for a walk.


"I was out to walk my dog in the morning when several policemen suddenly rushed me. Of course it was unpleasant but we soon sorted it out - we even embraced and wished each other good luck before we went our separate ways," he said. "It turned out that they thought I was a Wahhabite [Islamic fundamentalist] because of my beard."


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