Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 6 Issue: 15

Russian special forces carried out an operation on April 15 against rebels holed up in an apartment building in Grozny. While six militants were killed in the ensuing battle – which lasted between seven and nine hours, depending on the press report – five Federal Security Service (FSB) commandos also died. According to unconfirmed reports, another two commandos were seriously wounded. It was the largest loss of life for FSB commandos in a shootout with insurgents since last September’s school siege in Beslan, North Ossetia, during which ten FSB spetsnaz commandos were killed and 26 were left wounded. Kommersant reported on April 20 that the rebels killed in the battle had been identified as Muslim Gakaev (a.k.a. Dungo), a rebel commander from the village of Elistanzhi in the Chechnya’s Vedeno district, along with five of his bodyguards.

On April 18, Kommersant reported that the operation targeting the nine-story apartment building on Ulitsa Bogdan Khmelnitsky in the Ippodromny neighborhood of the Chechen capital’s Leninsky district was carried out on the basis of information from the archives of the late Chechen separatist leader Aslan Maskhadov. The documents, which were seized by FSB commandos during the March 8 operation in the town of Tolstoi-Yurt in which Maskhadov was killed, indicated that Chechen rebel field commander Doku Umarov was using a three-room apartment in the building as a base. Noting that both the operation against Maskhadov and the one in Grozny on April 15 were carried out by FSB spentsnaz specially flown in to Chechnya rather than by local security forces, the newspaper reported that the FSB carried out the latest operation without the knowledge of Chechen security forces.

This secrecy, on the one hand, apparently prevented information about the operation from leaking and thus gave the FSB the advantage of surprise. On the other hand, Kommersant quoted FSB sources as saying that the mission’s secrecy prevented the commandos from properly preparing the operation. “We couldn’t seriously keep watch on the apartment,” an FSB source told the newspaper. “The experienced Umarov, who has already been conducting guerrilla warfare for around ten years, has not only bombers and shooters, but also his own counter-intelligence unit. These people would discover any suspicious person. Thus, we did not know, for example, the exact number of militants who were in the apartment [or] their armaments. To the end, we were unable to establish whether Umarov himself was located among the bandits.” In addition, the commandos were not prepared for the “purely Chechen methods of apartment defense” they encountered. What is more, the militants employed RPGs and even a Shmel flamethrower, and each of them wore an explosive belt. Nezavisimaya gazeta reported on April 18 that one FSB spetsnaz commando died during the attempt to storm the apartment and four others were killed by booby-trap bombs that the militants had placed along the approach to the domicile.

On April 15, the day of the battle, Interfax quoted a law-enforcement source as suggesting that Doku Umarov was among the militants killed. Later in the day, however, Itar-Tass reported that Umarov was not among the dead rebels. Nezavisimaya gazeta and on April 18 cited unconfirmed reports that one rebel managed to break through the security ring around the apartment building and escape. The FSB, for its part, officially announced on April 18 that six rebels and five of its commandos were killed in the operation, adding that several pistols, automatic rifles and grenades were seized from the apartment in which the rebels had holed up.

As for civilian casualties, Novye izvestia on April 18 quoted eyewitnesses as saying that the security forces had refused to allow any of the building’s residents to leave it before and during the battle even though they included women and children. “Someone even jumped out of a window,” an eyewitness told the newspaper. “The militants did not sit in one place; they were constantly running across, shooting. Later on, some of the apartments caught fire. Ordinary residents were located in them; they were burned alive. A 50-year-old man suffocated from the smoke in an apartment on the fourth floor. It was said that five or six civilians died, and that there were only two militants.” reported on April 18 that Musa Mataev, a resident who lived in an apartment on the fifth floor, died as a result of smoke inhalation caused by a fire on the fourth floor and that two residents, including a woman identified as Milana Shidaeva, were wounded by gunfire from the militants. The website cited unconfirmed reports that 14 residents were wounded during the battle. Kommersant on April 18 reported that one resident died as a result of smoke inhalation and a woman in another apartment received serious shrapnel wounds and contusions. The Associated Press on April 15 cited a report by Grozny local television that four civilians were wounded and at least one person died of a heart attack during the shootout.

Kommersant on April 18 conjectured that the rebels in the apartment were low-level fighters who laid down covering fire that permitted Doku Umarov to escape. Given the FSB’s loss of five commandos, the newspaper concluded that the operation’s results were “far from brilliant.”

The Russian special services reportedly had more success earlier on April 15, when they conducted an operation in a village near the Khankala air base. The Associated Press quoted Major Gen. Ilya Shabalkin, chief spokesman for the federal forces in the North Caucasus region, as saying that the target of the operation was a group of militants who “under cover of darkness were sneaking around and looking for a vantage point to fire Strela anti-aircraft missile to shoot down aircraft.” Four rebels, including a citizen of Kazakhstan, were reportedly killed in the operation. Shabalkin had reported on April 11 that Russian special forces found a Strela anti-aircraft missile system and a large amount of ammunition after battling a group of rebel fighters in the eastern Nozhai-Yurt district and killing at least two of them.