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Dec 4, 2014 1:45 AM

Gun battle breaks out in Chechen capital, 9 dead

The Associated Press

GROZNY, Russia (AP) A gun battle broke out early Thursday in the capital of Russia's North Caucasus republic of Chechnya, leaving at least three traffic police officers and six gunmen dead, authorities said. The fighting punctured the patina of stability ensured by years of heavy-handed rule by a Kremlin-appointed leader.

The violence erupted hours before Russian President Vladimir Putin began his annual state of the nation address in Moscow. In his address, Putin said he was confident that local Chechen forces were capable of dealing with the "rebels," who he suggested were receiving support from abroad.

Security officials said militants traveling in three cars entered the republic's capital, Grozny, at 1 a.m. local time, killing three traffic police at a checkpoint. The Moscow-based National Anti-Terrorist Committee, a federal agency, said the militants then occupied the multi-story Press House in central Grozny, which was later destroyed by fire, killing six gunmen. Russian news agencies quoted unidentified Health Ministry sources as saying at least 10 officers were killed, but the number wasn't officially confirmed.

The Anti-Terrorist Committee said more gunmen had been found in a nearby school and an operation was underway to "liquidate" them. No students or teachers were in the school when it was seized by the militants, RIA Novosti quoted vice principal Islam Dzhabrailov as saying.

The mood was tense in Grozny on Thursday with heavy-caliber gunfire heard in the background and the area around the Press House and the school building cordoned off.

Although unrest is common across the North Caucasus, forceful security measures adopted by Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov have spared Grozny significant violence for several years. In October, however, a suicide bomber blew himself up outside a concert hall in Grozny, killing five policemen and wounding 12 others as the city celebrated Kadyrov's birthday.

The relative calm has allowed Putin to claim success in subduing an Islamic insurgency in Chechnya after years of war.

Dmitry Trenin, who heads the Carnegie Moscow Center, wrote in a Twitter post that "the night attack in Grozny looks senseless, except as an attempt to embarrass Putin hours before his annual address to parliament." Putin already was under pressure to reassure Russians as fears grow over soaring inflation and a plummeting ruble.

Kadyrov, who flew to Moscow on Thursday morning, was among the Russian federal and regional officials listening to Putin's address in a Kremlin hall.

An Associated Press reporter saw the publishing house in flames and heard the sound of gunfire before dawn, several hours after the unrest erupted. The AP reporter also saw the body of someone in civilian clothing in the street near the building as fighting continued, but it was not clear how and when the person had been killed.

The Anti-Terrorist Committee announced that it had imposed a counterterrorism regime on the center of Grozny. This officially allows heightened security measures to be enforced, and typically indicates the imminent use of heavy force.

Life News, a news outlet believed to have links to Russian security services, cited law enforcement officials as saying about 15 people seized three cars late Wednesday in the village of Shalazhi and drove to Grozny, some 50 kilometers (30 miles) away.

Kadyrov said on his Instagram account, which he uses to issue public statements, that the traffic police officers were shot dead as they attempted to stop the cars carrying the gunmen.

Kadyrov said the situation was calm and that all essential public services were operating, but he urged Grozny residents to be cautious.

"I ask residents in areas where (security) operations are being carried out to abide by safety measures, and not to go out onto the streets without cause or to go near their windows," he wrote. "All the talk about the city being under the control of the military is absolutely false."

In a message posted several hours later, Kadyrov said that six militants were killed in the standoff at the publishing house.

"Not one bandit managed to get out. I directly ran the operation myself," he wrote.

Kadyrov posted a picture showing the lower half of an apparently dead gunman lying beside a rifle, but it was not immediately clear if it showed one of the presumed attackers.

The Kavkaz Center website, a mouthpiece for Islamic militant groups operating in Russia's North Caucasus, carried a link to a video message by an individual claiming responsibility for the attacks. The man in the video claimed to be operating under orders from Chechen Islamist leader Aslan Byutukayev, known to his followers as Emir Khamzat.

The video could not immediately be verified.

A few years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Chechnya was plunged into a full-scale war when separatist rebels pursued independence for the republic. The violence was largely confined to that small republic, but rebels ventured into other parts of Russia.

A fragile peace settlement was reached with Moscow until 1999, when an insurgency movement increasingly inspired by radical Islamist ideas reignited the conflict. A military crackdown succeeded by years of aggressive rule by Kadyrov has quietened the region, pushing unrest to neighboring provinces.

Kadyrov has been widely denounced for human rights abuses, including allegations of killing opponents. He has also imposed some Islamic restrictions on the region, including mandatory public headscarves for women.


Nataliya Vasilyeva and Lynn Berry in Moscow contributed to this report.


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