On August 12 military and police units clashed with a group of rebels near the city of Nalchik, the capital of Kabardino-Balkaria, a region in the North Caucasus. As troops combed the woods near Nalchik, they met and clashed with a rebel group in a wooded area between the villages of Khasanya and Gerpegezh. The rebel squad consisted of four or five gunmen. After short, but fierce fighting, both sides suffered losses. One rebel was killed and one policeman wounded before the rebel group retreated deep into the forest and then escaped to the mountains.
According to Kommersant, units from the local branch of the Federal Security Service (FSB), the Center to Combat Terrorism (a newly formed structure in the Russian Interior Ministry that specializes in fighting the insurgency in the North Caucasus), and Interior Ministry forces took part in the search operation. Near Khasanya, policemen found a rebel base where 10 men could hide. The forest camp, covered by a big black tent, had several primitive beds, a wooden table with benches, and a bio-toilet. Medicines, some food, and three home-made bombs were also found at the camp (Kommersant, August 14).
Despite the fact that the rebels managed to escape, local security officials declared the operation a success. The Interior Ministry of Kabardino-Balkaria issued a statement saying that the insurgents had planned to organize attacks during two rallies that were held in Nalchik on August 12. One demonstration was to support Abkhazia in its standoff with Georgia and the other to protest the incorporation of Khasanya and other Balkar settlements into Nalchik city. Balkars regards this decision by the republican authorities as an attempt to liquidate what little autonomy the Balkar community still has.
It is doubtful that Kabardinian law-enforcement bodies actually prevented insurgent attacks that day in Nalchik. More likely, security officials needed to say something to avert public attention from the failure to surround and eliminate the rebel squad. That was the first serious clash between Russian police troops and the rebels in Kabardino-Balkaria since last October, when the insurgency staged a massive raid on Nalchik, attacking military and police facilities in the city. Afterwards the authorities declared victory and announced that no rebels were left in the region because all of them had been killed or arrested.
However, the mood of the local officials began to change early in the summer. On July 13, Yuri Tomchak, the Kabardinian interior minister, admitted that local officials still do not know the identity of more than 100 of the gunmen who took part in the Nalchik raid. Likewise, the authorities have been unable to locate another 60 rebels wanted in connection with the raid (Kavkazky Uzel, July 13).
Two days before Tomchak’s statement, on July 11, authorities launched a major sweep of the mountainous Elbrus district of Kabardino-Balkaria. On July 21, there was an announcement that the troops had discovered a training base in the forests of Chegemsky district. According to the Caucasus Times, targets with bullet holes and a backpack containing several hand grenades, fuses, and several military topographic maps for Kabardino-Balkaria and Mineralny Vody, a town in Stavropol krai, was discovered in the camp. Such reports are usually released when a mopping-up operation turned up nothing.
Along with the forests, some mountain villages were also searched. According to Regnum news agency, police units typically will arrive in the villages in mountain districts and start by detaining all local youth who practice Islam. Then they make house-to-house searches and also detain people considered suspicious by police officers. Then all detained persons are sent to Nalchik where they are interrogated and then either freed or detained for a longer time. Such sweeps usually trigger popular protests (Regnum, July 17).
At the same time, the authorities are trying to carry on the amnesty campaign that was initiated after the death of Caucasus insurgency commander Shamil Basaev in Ingushetia this July. Arsen Kanokov, the president of Kabardino-Balkaria, went on local television to make a special appeal asking the rebels to surrender (see EDM, July 27). Almost every day Kabardinian interior minister Tomchak makes appeals on TV asking the local guerillas to disarm and surrender.
However, the authorities continue to rely on sweep operations rather than appeals. On July 27, a sudden and massive mopping-up operation took place southwest of Nalchik, in Dolinsky settlement. According to Regnum agency, troops, supported by armored personnel carriers, moved into the area.
The reason and the result of the operation in Dolinsky are unknown, but its large scale suggests that local security officials are getting nervous because they have not been able to find and catch at least one Nalchik rebel despite the countless searches and arrests. The gunman killed near Khasanya on August 12 offers little comfort to local authorities, as they have been unable to discover the whereabouts of another 150 militants, nor do they know what they might be planning.