Heavily armed gunmen burst into the Parliament of Chechnya in southern Russia on Tuesday morning, killing at least three people and wounding more than a dozen others before they were killed by police or by their own explosives, officials said. The attackers, including one suicide bomber, unleashed a hail of automatic rifle fire and set off at least one explosion in one of the most brazen assaults to occur for some time in Chechnya, a region in the volatile North Caucasus where violence linked to a simmering Islamist insurgency is common.
Police were able to prevent the militants from reaching parliament members’ chambers, investigators said, though the men were able to barricade themselves on the first floor and open fire. Investigators said that three gunmen, armed with automatic weapons and explosives, drove through the front gates of the parliament complex, which is located in a busy section of downtown Grozny, Chechnya’s capital. It is believed they arrived at the parliament building by car, tailgating vehicles belonging to deputies, at about 0845 local time. Shouting Islamist slogans including “Allahu Akbar” – Arabic for “God is great,” the three fighters launched a bomb and gun attack as deputies arrived for work, killing two guards and an official. One of the militants then blew himself up, killing a staff member, said Alvi A. Karimov, the press secretary for Ramzan A. Kadyrov, Chechnya’s leader. The force of the blast blew out windows and injured several others.
Russian television showed panicked workers, some clutching injuries, stumbling past corpses to flee the parliament grounds, while heavily armoured police in helmets and flack jackets raced in. All members of parliament were evacuated, though at least 17 people, including six police, were wounded in the attack, which ended when special forces units killed the remaining militants. Deputies inside the building managed to escape by moving to an upper floor. A spokesman for the Chechen parliament, Zelim Yakhikhanov, said deputies had feared they would be taken hostage when they heard shooting outside the building. “We managed to take refuge on the third floor where we stayed until the end of the operation,” he told AFP news agency. (BBC) Mr. Kadyrov said the operation to suppress the attack took between 15 and 20 minutes. The official killed was reportedly the parliamentary bursar. Six police officers and 11 civilians were wounded, according to Russian prosecutors. It is unclear how such a small group of armed men could have penetrated the government building, which is usually heavily guarded. The city has been sealed off since the attack, and armoured vehicles are patrolling the streets, the pro-rebel news website Kavkaz-Tsentr said. (BBC)
The explosions caused heavy damage to parts of the building, according to a reporter for the state-run Interfax news agency. Stained-glass windows on several floors were blown out, as were exterior tiles on the building, and some interior walls were demolished, the reporter said.
No one immediately took responsibility for the attack, though it bore all the hallmarks of similar violence carried out by the region’s Islamist insurgents. An embattled, though still potent force, the insurgency arose from the remains of a fierce separatist movement that kept Russian forces at bay during nearly a decade of intermittent war in Chechnya that began in the mid-1990s.
Alexei Maleshenko, an analyst at the Carnegie Centre in Moscow, described the attack as “a slap in the face for Ramzan Kadyrov. The war is not finished if you can seize the parliament in the centre of the city – all Ramzan’s claims of victor over rebels are worthless,” the analyst told AFP.
Speaking at parliamentary session held in Grozny later on Tuesday despite the attacks, Mr. Kadyrov blamed the insurgents for seeking to spread “chaos and anarchy” through the region. “Today’s incident shows once again that these remaining gangs are truly devils,” he said in remarks posted to his Web site. “They have no humanity and have nothing in common with Islam. They are not human beings.” (New York Times) “They came into the parliament’s territory,” Mr. Kadyrov also said on the Web site. “They had weapons for a long fight, and what did we do? Destroyed them like rats… Allah created me to destroy these devils.” (Reuters) He said that all the deputies and other people inside the building had been freed.
On Tuesday, Russia’s interior minister, Rashid G. Nurgaliyev, played down the significance of the day’s violence, calling such attacks uncommon in Chechnya. Mr. Nurgaliyev, who happened to be visiting the region, called Chechnya “stable and safe,” and praised the response by riot police, who thwarted what he said was an attempt to take over the parliament building. “As always, the attempt failed,” he said in televised remarks. “Unfortunately, it was not without losses.” (New York Times) Nurgaliyev held an emergency meeting with Mr. Kadyrov shortly after the attack. He commended the Chechen security forces’ response to the attack, saying they had acted “professionally and competently,” and describing the attack as “untypical.” (BBC)
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said the family of each of the people killed by the attackers would receive compensation of 1 million rubles ($33,000) while those wounded would receive 400,000 rubles.
The attack was condemned by the EU and US who both pledged to work together with Russia to defeat “terrorism”. The EU foreign policy cheif, Baroness Ashton, was quoted by AFP news agency as saying: “No circumstances can justify the use of terrorist violence and suicide attacks.” (BBC) US National Security Council spokesman Mike Hammer offered condolences to the families of those who were killed and to those who were wounded.
Correspondents say the incident in the capital is a reminder that the region is far from stable. Tuesday’s attack echoed another raid by militants in August on Tsentoroi, Mr. Kadyrov’s home village. More than a dozen people were killed in that attack, including several civilians, according to Russian news media reports.
A resurgence of such high-profile attacks, which have grown rarer in Chechnya in recent years, could pose a challenge to Mr. Kadyrov, whose hold on power depends largely on his ability to keep such violence at bay. Russian leaders have practically granted Mr. Kadyrov carte blanche to conduct counterinsurgency operations in Chechnya, giving him tacit approval, human rights groups say, to wage a campaign of kidnapping, torture and murder against suspected insurgents and critics in an effort to restore stability.
Critics of the strategy have blamed the heavy-handed tactics for further fueling the insurgency, which has spread from Chechnya in recent years to other regions of the North Caucasus and beyond. “Lately the separatist militants have launched a number of attacks aimed at humiliating Kadyrov and discrediting his buoyant assurances to the Kremlin that he maintains tight control over the region,” analyst Lilit Gevorgyan from IHS Global Insight said in a research note. (Reuters) Yevgeny Volk, a political analyst at the Yeltsin Foundation in Moscow, said: “The bet on Kadyrov, who promised to place everything under control, proved wrong… The potential of this insurgency is immense.” (Reuters)
The standard of living in the southwestern republic is poor compared with the rest of Russia. Unemployment is rampant and infant mortality is high. In addition, the Chechen population of about 1 million is mostly made up of Sunni Muslims, who maintain a distinctly different cultural and linguistic identity from Russian Othordox Christians. Russia’s president, Dmitri A. Medvedev, has acknowledged that counterinsurgency tactics have failed to address the poverty and unemployment that have contributed to the lasting strength of the militants there. He has ordered local officials to concentrate on social welfare programs and job creation in addition to hard security measures.
But still the violence has continued. Just last month, a car bomb killed at least 16 people and injured over 100 at a crowded market in North Ossetia, a region in the North Caucasus where such violence is relatively rare. And militants from Chechnya and Dagestan, a neighbouring region, claimed responsibility for coordinated suicide bombings that killed 40 people in the Moscow subway in March. Chechen rebels also were accused of downing two Russian airplanes in 2004. And they took over a school in Beslan in the North Ossetia region in the same year. When the siege ended, more than 330 people had died – half of them children. In 2002, suicide bombers driving two trucks carrying an estimated 1 ton of explosives rammed the gates of another government building in Grozny, killing 72 people and wounding 310. Also in 2002, Chechen rebels held 700 audience-members hostage in a Moscow theatre. A Russian effort to free them resulted in the deaths of 120 hostages.
The conflict dates back nearly 20 years, with Chechens having laid claim to land in the Caucasus Mountains region. Thousands have been killed and 500,000 Chechen people have been displaced from the fighting. In recent years, the insurgency has moved to the east and the west – to the republics of Dagestan and Ingushetia, where rebels are fighting troops to destabilize the region.