President Vladimir Putin (search) ordered security forces Monday to show no quarter to suspected Islamic militants in southern Russia's mainly Muslim region, and praised a siege operation that left three insurgents dead.
Russia's southern provinces have been plagued by violence — including the September school hostage-taking in the city of Beslan in which 330 people were killed — some of it spilling over from war-shattered Chechnya (search).
Police killed a suspected militant trying to flee capture in the southern city of Karachayevsk on Monday, a day after security forces stormed an apartment building, killing three people inside in Nalchik, capital of Kabardino-Balkariya, to end a day-old standoff.
"You should work like this in the future, and treat them more severely, more severely," Putin told Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev (search) in a conversation that was pointedly shown on Russian television.
Putin rose to the presidency in 2000 on the strength of sending Russian troops back into Chechnya to root out militants in 1999 when he was Boris Yeltsin's prime minister, But the terrorists spillover from the still ongoing war has plagued him since. In the first Chechen war, from 1994-96, the rebels fought the Russian forces to a standstill.
The president's get-tough order came two days before the Feb. 23 anniversary of Stalin-era mass deportation of Chechens to Central Asia — in a possible anticipation of disorders.
In the Nalchik operation, police sealed off an apartment building after learning of a group of armed men inside, and stormed the apartment Sunday.
Two of three killed were ethnic Russians and the third an ethnic Karachay from the predominantly Muslim region of Karachayevo-Cherkessiya, said Alexei Polyansky, spokesman for the Russian Interior Ministry's southern regional branch.
It was unclear whether the two Russians were adherents of Islam or simply mercenaries, Polyansky said.
Russian officials frequently play up claims of a large foreign mercenary presence among Chechen rebels and other militants in the south to shore up their argument that they are closely linked to international terrorists, justifying the Kremlin's harsh response.
The increasing use of suicide bombers and merciless hostage-takings are widely thought to have been inspired by foreign emissaries linked to Al Qaeda.
The confrontation with the three militants came during a three-day sweep in Nalchik to root out what Arkady Edelev, a deputy interior minister, called "terrorist-sabotage groups" preparing terrorist attacks.
A nationalist newspaper editor and Kremlin critic, Alexander Nagorny, said Monday Putin could "choke" on the persistent violence in the Caucasus — much as the United States is struggling with the insurgency in Iraq.
"This is very obvious, because we see how partisan and terrorist activity is spreading to more and more regions. [The government] doesn't have the strength to deal with it, especially with the continuation of the existing approaches, the existing tactics and strategy," said Nagorny, deputy editor of the Zavtra newspaper.
The spokesman for the Federal Security Service, Sergei Ignatchenko, said Monday that an Al Qaeda liaison in southern Russia had died in a confrontation with Russian security and police forces.
Abu Dzeit, a Kuwaiti national, blew himself up during a special operation in the region of Ingushetia, which neighbors Chechnya, on Wednesday, Ignatchenko said. Security forces killed two of his accomplices in a house and then found Abu Dzeit in a bunker built underground.
Ignatchenko said Abu Dzeit was involved in funding and planning several attacks, including the June 2004 raid in Ingushetia and the Beslan hostage-taking.