Russian special forces backed by armored personnel carriers battled for more than five hours on January 27 with suspected Islamic militants holed up in two apartments in a building in Nalchik, Kabardino-Balkaria. Seven people, including three women, died in the shoot-out, which followed a two-day standoff. Russian Deputy Interior Minister Arkady Yedelev told reporters after the operation was over that commandos had moved to storm the apartments after learning that the militants planned to attempt to break out of the encirclement using home-made mines and bombs (Itar-Tass, January 27). Kommersant reported on January 28 that security forces did not storm the building earlier because the militants tricked them into thinking there was at least one infant inside. Deputy Prosecutor General Nikolai Shepel told reporters that among the bodies found in the apartments was that of Muslim Ataev, leader of the “Yarmuk” Jamaat, or underground Islamist organization, which claimed responsibility for the attack on the regional branch of the Federal Drug Control Service (FSKN) in Nalchik last December 14 that killed four officers (see EDM, December 17).
The operation began on January 25 after the militants fired on police during a routine passport check of apartment buildings. Authorities then sealed off the area, bringing in Federal Security Service (FSB) and Emergencies Ministry (MChS) units, fire trucks and ambulances, and, later, armored vehicles. Residents in the apartment building and neighboring buildings were evacuated (Itar-Tass, January 27). According to Kommersant, the commandos were prepared to storm the apartments immediately, but those in charge of the operation held off after a woman who was with the militants appeared before the window holding what appeared to be a bundled-up infant. Some on the scene reportedly recognized the woman as Sakinat Katsieva, Muslim Ataev’s common-law wife, who gave birth to his son last year. More than a day of intermittent and ultimately unsuccessful attempts to negotiate with the militants followed. The authorities eventually learned that the infant they thought was with the militants was in fact with his grandmother at another location (Kommersant, January 28).
After the order to storm the building was given, security forces fired on it with high-caliber machineguns and flamethrowers, igniting a fire in the fourth-floor apartment where some of the militants were holed up — including, according to Kommersant, two women, who reportedly fired on commandos. The fourth-story apartment was virtually demolished in the attack: Ren TV in its evening broadcast on January 27 showed it blackened and still smoldering following the battle. Two police commandos were wounded in the fighting, although not seriously. Deputy Interior Minister Yedelev claimed that the authorities had learned through taps on the militants’ telephones that they were planning large-scale terrorist acts in Nalchik and that the two women killed on the fourth floor were going to carry out suicide bomb attacks. However, Kommersant quoted investigators as saying that the women had indeed called relatives in Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachaevo-Cherkessia, but had simply said that they were “ready for a martyr’s death in the name of Allah” and had not discussed carrying out suicide bombings (Kommersant, January 28; Itar-Tass, January 27).
According to Gzt.ru, the 30-year-old Muslim Ataev, also known by the nom de guerre “Dyavol” (Devil) and the Muslim name “Seifulla,” was a twice-convicted drug addict from the village of Kenden in Kabardino-Balkaria’s Elbrus district, who between 1997 and 1999 belonged to an organized crime group involved in racketeering and illegal currency operations. In 1999, Ataev was recruited by the leader of the republic’s “Wahabbis,” Magomed Shaev (who was killed in June 2003), with whom he traveled to Ingushetia in the spring of 2000 for training at a camp run by Chechen rebel field commander Ruslan Galaev. Later that year, the militants traveled to the Akhmeta district in Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge, where Chechen field commanders made Ataev an “emir” in charge of the Jamaat “Yarmuk” in Kabardino-Balkaria. A Georgian security operation forced Ataev’s group out of the Pankisi Gorge in the fall of 2002 and in September of that year the group participated in the large-scale battle between rebels led by Gelaev and Russian forces in Ingushetia’s Galashki village. After Russian forces killed Gelaev in Dagestan last year, Ataev became directly subordinated to Shamil Basaev, Gzt.ru reported on January 27.
Meanwhile, the Chechen separatist website Kavkazcenter on January 28 posted a statement from “the press center of the command of the Kabardino-Balkaria Jamaat ‘Yarmuk’ ” announcing that three “mujahideen headed by the Emir Seifulla [Muslim Ataev],” along with “four female relatives and wives of the mujahideen and the six-month-old daughter of Emir Seifulla,” had been killed in the battle in Nalchik. “The Jamaat ‘Yarmuk’ suggests to the child-killers from the Kabardino-Balkaria Interior Ministry, the FSB, and the so-called Russian spetsnaz to return to Ataev’s relatives for burial the body of his six-month-old daughter, whom they murdered and then abducted, trying to hide their shame, cowardice, and savage hatred of Muslims,” the statement read. It also said the group remains “battle-worthy,” plans further “missions,” and “continues to hold high the banner of Jihad.”
The Nalchik shoot-out was just the latest in a series of urban battles between security forces and Islamic militants in the North Caucasus. On January 15, four commandos and six gunmen died in separate shoot-outs in the Dagestani cities of Kaspiisk and Makhachkala (Interfax, January 15; EDM, January 19). The latter battle lasted more than 15 hours and demolished the house in which the militants were holed up. On January 8, more than 100 servicemen, backed by five armored vehicles, engaged in a gun battle with rebels in Nazran, Ingushetia. Four militants died in the fighting, which left the house in which they were hiding in ruins (RIA Novosti, January 8).