GROZNY, Russia: Islamist insurgents launched a brazen attack in the Chechen capital Grozny on Thursday (early Friday in Manila) that sparked heavy clashes with security forces, leaving 20 dead and a central market burnt.
Militants barricaded themselves in a school and police cordoned off city streets in violence that erupted just as President Vladimir Putin gave his annual address to the nation, vowing to end violence in Chechnya.
Putin has pledged to wipe out the insurgency in the North Caucasus but simmering violence has continued in Chechnya and nearby regions, with a suicide blast rocking Chechnya in October.
Putin blamed “terrorists” for the attack and described the police who lost their lives as “real heroes.”
The Caucasus Emirate, an Islamist group that has claimed responsibility for a string of deadly attacks, said it was behind the violence in a video posted on the website Kavkaz Center, saying it was revenge for “oppression of Muslim women.”
Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov told Putin in a televised meeting that 10 militants were killed after several hours of fighting that saw armed personnel carriers drive into residential areas and shooting in the streets.
“All 10 bandits have been eliminated,” Kadyrov said. “Unfortunately we did not escape losses, but the bandits’ intentions, their plot, was defeated.”
“You have no reason to blush because you personally and your staff acted swiftly and professionally,” Putin told the Chechen strongman. “So a separate thank-you to you and all the law enforcement authorities in Chechnya,” he added.
The operation against the gunmen killed 10 police and injured 28, the National Antiterrorism Committee said in a statement.
Putin praised those who died as “real heroes,” saying “we will never forget them and must give all the help needed to the families of the dead.”
Kadyrov said the militants had planned to stage the attack on Friday but had launched their violent action after being stopped by traffic police in the early hours of Thursday.
The National Antiterrorism Committee said police efforts “liquidated” the group and “thwarted major acts of terror.”
Debris and bullet castings littered the streets after the attack and a central market was destroyed by fire.
Militants stormed a media center called the Press House in central Grozny as well as a school about a kilometer away.
Kadyrov said on Echo of Moscow radio that the gunmen were “very heavily armed,” including with grenade launchers.
An Agence France-Presse correspondent said a large area in the city centre was closed off by security forces, with automatic fire as well as larger caliber artillery audible several blocks away.
Authorities said gunmen inside the Press House were killed as the building was left smoldering and gutted by fire.
Chechnya’s parliament speaker Dukuvakha Abdurakhmanov blamed Western leaders for the attack, as Moscow is locked in the worst standoff with Europe and the United States since the Cold War over the Ukraine conflict.
“The dreams of [President Barack] Obama, [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel and their conspirators will never come true,” he vowed to TASS news agency.
Second attack in weeks
Thursday’s attack was the first such raid in months by militants in Grozny, which was ravaged by two wars between separatists and the Russian army over the past 20 years.
But it comes weeks after five policemen were killed and a dozen wounded in Grozny in October when they stopped a young suicide bomber from attacking a concert hall where thousands had gathered to mark a local holiday.
That attack shattered a period of relative calm in the region and sparked concerns of a new cycle of violence in the North Caucasus.
Despite claims by Kadyrov that Chechnya’s insurgency has been eradicated, “they have shown once again that they exist and continue doing what they were doing before,” said Alexander Cherkasov of Memorial human rights group.
“There is an insurgency in Chechnya, despite careful and total control over the republic’s residents, and perhaps because of it,” he added.
Putin – who launched the second Chechen war in 1999 when as prime minister he famously vowed to “wipe out [militants]in the outhouse” – has staked his political career on a promise to crush the bloody insurgency in the Caucasus.
After the second Chechen war, a pro-Kremlin regime was installed in the republic, first headed by rebel-turned-Moscow-ally Akhmad Kadyrov and, following his slaying in a bombing in 2004, by his son Ramzan Kadyrov, a strongman who has ruthlessly put down opposition and whose regime has been accused of human rights violations.