VLADIKAVKAZ, Russia – A nighttime attack this week in the Russian republic of Ingushetia (search) by militants near the border of war-ravaged Chechnya (search) killed 92 people and wounded 125, a regional government official said Wednesday.
Among the dead were 67 members of law enforcement agencies, said the official, Magomed Ziyaudinnov.
About 1,000 militants had taken part in the attacks late Monday night, Ziyaudinnov said, quoting the Ingush Interior Ministry. Ingush officials had previously said about 200 fighters had participated.
The regional branch of Russia's Federal Security Service received information about the movements of an armed group about 30 minutes before the start of the attacks, the ITAR-Tass news agency quoted the deputy of the regional branch, Andrei Konin, as saying.
"But we did not expect such breadth — simultaneous attacks on 15 sites," Konin told ITAR-Tass.
An Ingush policeman who identified himself only by his first name, Musa, said the attacks appeared to be timed around the changing of the guard at the Kavkaz checkpoint, the biggest army and police traffic stop on the main highway between Chechnya and Ingushetia, shortly before midnight Monday.
Many soldiers were killed in ambushes, while police and other law enforcement officials were shot and killed after being called to work after an alert was issued, Musa said. The officials were stopped and asked for identification papers at checkpoints set up by the gunmen, who were dressed in black balaclava masks and camouflage uniforms or black leather jackets similar to those worn by police. He said the gunmen disarmed and tied up some traffic policemen but spared their lives.
Flags flew at half-staff and all entertainment television programs in Ingushetia were canceled, as a three-day mourning period began Wednesday.
On Tuesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin (search) visited Ingushetia and said a regiment of Interior Ministry forces would be stationed there permanently, raising the Kremlin's troop commitment to the troubled Caucasus region.
The coordinated assaults by heavily armed fighters on police and border guards facilities in the main Ingush city of Nazran and several smaller settlements were a graphic demonstration of Russian forces' vulnerability to guerrillas.
For the approximately four hours that the fighting raged, the militants — whom authorities estimated to number up to 200 — controlled police checkpoints along much of the 35-mile Ingush stretch of the Federal Caucasus highway, the main route used by the Russian military in the region.
Thousands of Russian troops streamed into Ingushetia Tuesday to search for the attackers, who were believed to have escaped into the forests along the Chechen border, over the mountains into Georgia, or back to their hometowns in Ingushetia itself. Musa, the Ingush policemen, said that most of the attackers were believed to be Ingush, not Chechen.
Putin, meeting with Ingush President Murat Zyazikov, said the search for the attackers must go on "as long as necessary."
"It's a new attempt, not the first one, to intimidate the Ingush, intimidate the leadership of the republic, and destabilize the situation in the south of Russia," Putin was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency.
Five alleged attackers were detained, Ingush Interior Ministry spokesman Yakhya Khadziyev said. Two of the suspects were wounded.
Chechen Interior Minister Alu Alkhanov, the Kremlin's candidate to replace slain Chechen President Akhmad Kadyrov, said the attacks had been led by an Ingushetia-based rebel leader, Magomed Yevloyev, Interfax said. His deputy, Ruslan Alkhanov, told Interfax that Yevloyev was a leader of the extremist Wahhabi Islamic group.
The brazen assaults raised new doubts about the Kremlin's strategy in Chechnya. Unable to defeat the rebels and refusing to negotiate with them, the Kremlin instead has banked on restoring stability through civil measures, including holding elections for a Chechen president and promising the republic a substantial amount of autonomy.
Kadyrov was assassinated in May, and Aslan Maskhadov, Chechnya's former separatist president, said last week that the rebels were preparing new offensives.
Maj. Gen. Ilya Shabalkin, spokesman for the Russian forces in Chechnya, accused Chechen rebels of planning the attacks, but said the raids were carried out by fighters recruited from both Chechnya and Ingushetia, the Interfax-Military News Agency reported.
Although the Chechen war occasionally spilled into Ingushetia, the republic has remained comparatively stable, and a significant recruitment of Ingush fighters could foretell a spread of the war beyond Chechnya.
"The attacks were clearly saber rattling, aimed to demonstrate the rebels' effectiveness to attract funding from foreign terrorist networks," Shabalkin was quoted as saying.
Although Chechnya is a largely Muslim region in overwhelmingly Christian Russia, the first of Chechnya's two wars was an essentially secular conflict. After Russian troops pulled out when Chechen rebels fought them to a standstill, the separatists increasingly took on a specifically Islamic mantle.