Early in the morning of October 13, police in Kabardino-Balkaria received an anonymous telephone tip that gunmen had been seen near the Belya Rechka River on the outskirts of Nalchik, the local capital. Police and military Special Forces units rushed to the scene. About 8:30 am the Kabardinian Ministry of Internal Affairs reported that 10 militants had been surrounded and several killed (gazeta.ru, October 13).
Initial reports suggested this was yet another case of North Caucasus law-enforcement agencies uncovering yet another small group of rebels. However, at 9:30 am, Interfax and Itar-Tass began reporting shootouts in the center of Nalchik, first near the headquarters of the police Organized Crime and Terrorism Department and then near the local branch of the Federal Security Service (FSB).
At last, at 10.00 am, a spokesman from the local Ministry of Internal Affairs admitted that militants had attacked facilities throughout the city. Reports one hour later indicated that the rebels, whose estimated number had jumped from the official figure of 60 men to an unofficial 600, had attacked more than 15 targets, including all police and FSB buildings in Nalchik, military garrison near the airport, police dormitories, and the TV and cell phone communications towers.
The massive attack that Chechen rebels have promised all year was now underway. Chechen field commander Doku Umarov announced this May that the separatist forces were changing their tactics and would launch attacks outside Chechnya (Chechnya Weekly, May 11). Around the same time, Chechen separatist leader Abdul-Khalim Sadulaev ordered the insurgents to establish a new front in the North Caucasus consisting of four republics west of Chechnya (Ingushetia, North Ossetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, and Karachaevo-Cherkessia) and two provinces populated mostly by ethnic Russians: Krasnodar Krai and Stavropol Krai (Kavkazcenter, May 16). Russian authorities took these steps very seriously, dispatching additional army and police troops to the region (see EDM, August 11).
While there were no large-scale rebel attacks this summer, federal authorities stepped up their presence in the North Caucasus. In September units from the 58th Russian army located in the region started held unprecedented exercises in five Caucasian republics, including Kabardino-Balkaria. Russian interior troops, border guards, and air force units also took part in the exercises. The North Caucasian Military District announced that the objective of the exercises was to learn how to establish a unified command center and conduct special operations against illegal armed formations (Izvestiya, September 20).
Despite the exercises, the Nalchik attack caught officials off guard. The authorities had information about advance preparations for the rebel assault, but they failed to take preventative measures (Interfax, October 12).
The rebel strategy in Kabardino-Balkaria mirrored last year’s raid on neighboring Ingushetia. They attacked military garrisons first, specifically a company of the 135th motorized rifle regiment located near Nalchik airport and the border guards headquarters. Then the insurgents surrounded and assaulted police and FSB offices in the center of Nalchik. The attack was deliberately planned to start in the city between 9 and 10 am, when most police and FSB officers attend departmental meetings.
Blocked by militants on the outskirts of Nalchik, the soldiers could not help their police colleagues. Army units from other parts of Kabardino-Balkaria moved too slowly towards the city, fearing an ambush by waiting gunmen. Thus the militants had several unfettered hours to occupy the city center and seize or kill as many police as possible. The fiercest battles took place near Police Precinct No. 3, which the rebels seized, and near the FSB and Ministry of Internal Affairs buildings. The gunmen occupied the first and second floors of the FSB headquarters and the first floor in the Ministry. The gunmen burned two police precinct buildings and the Organized Crime and Terrorism Department to the ground.
While the gunmen had a well-organized attack, the federals panicked. Nalchik residents posted Internet reports that terrified policemen were jumping from the burning buildings. Russian Special Forces troops yelled at NTV correspondents filming them, but they were helpless as the insurgents freely moved around in the area. Residents reported artillery barrages and said high buildings were under heavy tank gunfire. Official reports of 12 civilian deaths are so far impossible to verify.
Most of the attackers apparently managed to escape. During a meeting with First Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs Alexander Chekalin, Russian President Vladimir Putin acted as if it were business as usual. Showing no emotion, he ordered security officials to block Nalchik and eliminate all gunmen in the city — the same scenario drilled in last month’s war games. But by the time Putin gave this order, the militants had already started to leave the city. Locals told Jamestown by telephone that around 1 pm the city center had grown calm, but gunfire and explosions could be heard in the northern outskirts of the city, where there is an escape route to the mountains and a road to Ingushetia and Chechnya. An NTV correspondent also said that the rebels had moved northward toward the Prokhladny settlement and Khasanya, a mountain Balkar village. Only two pockets of resistance were left in the city. Approximately one dozen wounded fighters who could not leave the city continued to fight with the Special Forces until they were killed early this morning.
The Nalchik attack showed that the rebels in the North Caucasus maintain sufficient military capabilities to attack and temporarily hold one of the largest cities in the North Caucasus and could have enough capability to seize control of a whole region in the near future. The attack on Nalchik sent a clear warning to Putin and his team that they are outgunned in the Caucasus.