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Chechen separatist rebels raid kills 75 people { June 22 2004 }

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June 22, 2004
Rebel Raid Near Chechnya Is Said to Kill at Least 75 People

GROZNY, Russia, June 22 An audacious overnight raid by heavily armed militants in a southern Russian republic neighboring Chechnya killed as many as 75 people and wounded dozens more before the fighters withdrew with minimal losses and a cache of captured weapons, officials said today.

The raid, which began late Monday night with a series of attacks against police and security posts across the republic, Ingushetia, was the largest attack by Chechen separatist rebels outside Chechnya since 1999. And it appeared to catch police and security officers in the region off guard and ill prepared.

President Vladimir V. Putin met with his law enforcement deputies in the Kremlin today. He vowed to retaliate for the raid, as he has before though to little obvious effect when the war in Chechnya has flared.

"We have to find and destroy them," Mr. Putin said sternly in remarks broadcast on the state television channels. "Those whom it is possible to take alive must be brought to trial."

The death toll remained unclear by tonight, but among the dead were at least 47 local police or security officers, the senior Kremlin official in the region, Vladimir Y. Yakovlev, said, according to the Interfax news agency. At least four police officers were listed as missing in action. The office of Ingushetia's president said at least 28 civilians also died.

The fighting killed Ingushetia's acting interior minister, Abukar Kostoyev, and his deputy. Two criminal investigators and four prosecutors died as they drove in separate cars through an intersection controlled by militants in Ingushetia's capital, Nazran, according to news reports. A United Nations aid worker, Magomed Getagazov, also died, caught up in the fighting as he rode in a taxi home from work, the organization's office in Moscow said.

At least 100 militants seized the Interior Ministry's headquarters for several hours and destroyed several other security posts around Nazran and two other cities before breaking off the raid and retreating early today, according to official accounts.

In all, some 200 militants were believed to have taken part in the attacks. According to two security officials interviewed in Mozdok, a city on the border of Chechnya and Ingushetia, only two militants died in the fighting.

New fighting was reported this afternoon near Galashki, a small village in Ingushetia, where at least some of the militants appeared to be making their way through the rugged Caucasus foothills southeast of Nazran toward Chechnya. They were driving stolen trucks and cars loaded with ammunition, weapons and, possibly, explosives, the officials said.

There were conflicting reports about whether the fighters retreated with hostages. It appeared that most of the fighters escaped.

"The main goal was to get weapons," Sergei B. Prokopov, an official with the regional prosecutor's office, said in an interview in Mozdok. Referring to overnight fighting in two other towns, Karabulak and Sleptsovskaya, he added, "The other attacks were just a diversion."

Televised reports showed scenes of destruction in the center of Nazran. The Interior Ministry's headquarters was charred and gutted. Other buildings and cars were pockmarked by gunfire and the splash-shaped impacts of rocket-propelled grenades.

In Nazran, witnesses described a night of panic that gave way to a new day of fear over how easily the simmering conflict in Chechnya spilled into Ingushetia. "What else can happen?" said Raisa S. Pushtova, a doctor in a Nazran hospital where many of the wounded were taken.

She was treating four critically wounded patients in her ward. Among the dead were three children, she said, apparently caught in the hail of gunfire and grenade blasts in Nazran. She described devastation on the streets, many of which remained blocked off.

"Most people are in their apartments, afraid to leave," she said in a telephone interview from the hospital.

The violence badly undermined repeated assertions by Russian officials that the Chechen rebels were too battered to mount significant offensive operations. Mr. Prokopov said the raid's focus on seizing weapons suggested that Chechnya's insurgents still had a reservoir of support.

"This means they have new recruits they have to arm," he said in an interview as he traveled with journalists on another of the periodic trips the Kremlin organizes to highlight the progress being made in Chechnya.

Only last week, Chechnya's Interior Minister and the front-runner in the republic's new presidential election, Maj. Gen. Alu Alkhanov, that no more than 500 rebels were still resisting federal and local forces in Chechnya. In Grozny today, General Alkhanov said the attack was the work of the Chechen separatist leader, Aslan Maskhadov, who told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty last week that the rebels would change tactics and focus on larger attacks.

Despite a decade of conflict that first erupted in 1994, Chechnya's separatists have shown striking resilience, in the face of Russia's overwhelming military might and uneven support within Chechnya, where many residents voice anger over the seemingly endless cycle of attacks and counterattacks.

Scattered in the mountains and remote villages, the separatists have in recent years relied more and more on suicide bombings or other terrorist attacks against Russian and Chechens loyal to Moscow. Only six weeks ago, a bomb hidden in a pillar at Grozny's main stadium killed the republic's pro-Kremlin president, Akhmad Kadyrov.

Kremlin officials have said that the militants receive financing and other support from international terrorist organizations.

In Grozny, Taus Dzhabrailov, the newly appointed chairman of the state council in Chechnya, reiterated that view in an interview today, saying the raid underscored the folly of negotiating an end to the conflict, as some have called for before elections to replace Mr. Kadyrov are held in August.

"Do you think now is the time to be negotiating with these groups?" he said.

Ingushetia, with a predominately Muslim population with close ethnic ties to Chechnya, had been the site of clashes and bombings before, but until today had been largely spared the worst of the two wars that have raged nearby, despite a large population of Chechen refugees.

Today's raid and the militants' apparent success prompted unusually pointed public criticism of the handling of the war by federal security and military forces.

Issa M. Kostoyev, the Ingush representative in the upper house of Parliament, or Federation Council, expressed outrage that the militants were able to enter the republic and effectively seize an entire district in its capital for several hours.

"This was the result of carelessness and an inability to localize the situation," Mr. Kostoyev, who is related to the slain interior minister, told the Interfax news agency. "Efficient measures should have been taken to seal the entire border with Chechnya. This should have been done by federal forces, but they did not do anything."

The police and border troops throughout southern Russian went on alert today, fearing further attacks. The president of Ingushetia, Murat M. Zyazikov, issued a statement calling for calm, mourning the casualties and promising swift retaliation.

"It was aimed at destabilizing the situation in the republic, expanding the combat zone and creating panic among the local population," said Mr. Zyazikov, who narrowly escaped an assassination attempt earlier this year for which Chechen militants were blamed.

Rachel Thorner contributed reporting from Moscow for this article.

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company

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