President Vladimir Putin ordered a total security blockade of a key North Caucasus city Thursday as Russian security forces struggled to contain a coordinated guerrilla attack, the latest in a growing wave of unrest that threatens to destabilize Russia's entire southern flank.
Chechen rebel forces took responsibility for the assault on Nalchik, capital of Kabardino-Balkaria, that killed scores of people and left parts of the city of 235,000 in flames.
Russian news reports said up to 300 militants launched simultaneous early morning attacks on three police stations, the main airport, and the downtown headquarters of the Interior Ministry and local Federal Security Service (FSB). Some fighting was reported Thursday evening, including at a police station where police hostages were being held.
Mr. Putin, who has repeatedly expressed frustration at the inability of security forces to contain the growing regional unrest, ordered a complete lockdown of Nalchik. "All armed people offering resistance must be killed," Russian deputy interior minister Alexander Chekalin quoted Putin as ordering at a Kremlin meeting.
Since the second war in Chechnya began six years ago, unrest has seeped through the entire North Caucasus region, fueled by poverty, crime, corrupt governance, and the rising influence of Islamist ideas.
Kabardino-Balkaria's president, Valery Kokov, abruptly resigned last month and was replaced by Arsen Kanokov, a local businessman trusted by Moscow. Experts say corruption flourished under Mr. Kokov, handing an important advantage to Islamist rebels.
Experts say the attack on Nalchik, which does not border on Chechnya, could not have been conducted without local support.
"Chechnya is the main hotbed of tensions, but these conflicts erupting in other republics also have local roots," says Irina Zvigelskaya, deputy director of the independent Center for Strategic and Political Studies in Moscow. "There are underground groups around the region, and it's a big question to what extent they maintain links with one another."
Russian experts say Yarmuk, an Islamist insurgent group, could have been behind the raid. But the assault appears similar to a 2004 attack on the Ingush capital of Nazran, perpetrated by local insurgents backed by Chechen fighters and for which Basayev claimed responsibility.
A leading lawmaker, Viktor Ilyukhin, blamed the Kremlin for failing to catch the fugitive Basayev, or to predict the attack on Nalchik. "We know that Basayev was in [Kabardino-Balkaria] a few days ago meeting with extremists there," Mr. Ilyukhin told the Ekho Moskvi radio station. "Our leadership ... threaten to bomb terrorist bases in foreign countries, but can't even liquidate extremists in our own North Caucasus territories."
Some experts say Thursday's events show the Kremlin's strategy of imposing tough, loyal local leaders - being implemented in the region by Putin's personal emissary Dmitri Kozak - has clearly failed to bring results.
"The approach of hushing things up, appointing obedient leaders to impose [the Kremlin's will] on the region will lead to a loss of control," says Alexander Iskanderyan, director of the Yerevan-based Center for Caucasian Studies. "An absolute loss of control already looms."