A fierce gun battle between Islamist militants and government security forces paralyzed the center of the Chechen capital, Grozny, overnight into Thursday, leaving at least 20 people dead and embarrassing President Vladimir V. Putin hours before he delivered his State of the Nation speech in Moscow.
It was the most violent, brazen attack linked to militant activity in the region in months. As dawn broke, smoke was rising from several locations, residents said in telephone interviews. Kheda Saratova, a human rights activist, said that gunfire had continued through the morning.
There was some speculation among analysts and on social media that the assault had been carried out by fighters linked to the Islamic State or other radical groups fighting in Syria. If so, it would be the first such attack inside Russia.
Chechen fighters in Syria have threatened to carry out attacks in response to Moscow’s unalloyed support for the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad.
Ramzan A. Kadyrov, the Kremlin ally who runs Chechnya, sought to play down the violence, attending Mr. Putin’s speech in Moscow and claiming that the reconstruction of the damaged buildings had already begun.
“When this all started,” Mr. Kadyrov told reporters at the Kremlin, “I flew home, organized a special operation, killed the devils, held a meeting, gathered the staff needed to restore the damaged building, and made it back in time to listen to the address of our national leader.” He was seen during the speech checking his telephone intently.
Mr. Putin made a passing reference to the attack, first suggesting that the West was behind the long history of terrorist insurgency in the restive Caucasus Mountains because it wanted to break up Russia, just as it had Yugoslavia.
“Now these ‘rebels’ showed themselves again in Chechnya,” Mr. Putin said. “I am sure the local guys, local law enforcement bodies, will cope with it properly. They are working now to liquidate a new terrorist raid.”
In a further attempt to reassure the public, state television showed Mr. Putin meeting in his office with Mr. Kadyrov. Mr. Kadyrov assured him that Grozny was under control, describing the operations there, while Mr. Putin instructed that the families of the dead government troops should be comforted.
Mr. Putin cemented his popularity after assuming power in 2000 by ending a protracted war in Chechnya. Mr. Kadyrov, while often accused of human rights violations, pushed militants out of Chechnya itself into neighboring republics, where the number of attacks rose. Chechnya has remained relatively calm.
The attack on Thursday and the brewing economic crisis in Russia raised simultaneous questions about the signature achievements of Mr. Putin’s presidency: ending the Chechen war and obtaining new prosperity for many Russians.
Most of the violence in the Caucasus goes unnoticed because it takes place outside major urban centers. But Caucasian Knot, an authoritative website that tracks events in the region, said that 290 people had been killed and 144 wounded in fighting in the Caucasus this year through the end of November.
The attack Thursday was the third major assault this year, the website said, following a suicide bombing in Grozny on Oct. 5 that killed five people and the destruction of a government armored personnel carrier by a land mine in April, in which four soldiers were killed and seven wounded.
On Thursday, militants traveling in three cars infiltrated Grozny around 1 a.m., killing three traffic police officers at a checkpoint and then occupying the 10-story House of Publishing at the center of the city, according to a statement by Russia’s National Antiterrorism Committee. Six of the gunmen were killed by security officers inside the building, which was gutted by fire that spread to a nearby market, it said.
The rest of the attackers were found near the House of Publishing in School No. 20, where fighting continued later on Thursday, the statement said. Neither teachers nor students were at the school when it was seized, according to Russian news reports.
Ten police officers and nine militants were killed, Russian and Chechen government officials said. Another 28 police officers were injured, Andrey Chatsky, a spokesman for the antiterrorism committee, said in a statement broadcast on Russian television that also confirmed the police death toll.
Law enforcement agents killed at least nine militants, Mr. Kadyrov said in a statement posted on his website, noting, “We have the corpses.” He said the operation was over. He did not mention civilian casualties, and the Interior Ministry for the Chechen Republic did not answer telephone calls on Thursday evening.
The Interfax news agency quoted Mr. Kadyrov as saying that civilian victims of the violence would be compensated. As the fighting continued, he used social media accounts to advise downtown residents to remain at home and away from windows.
There was little news of the attack on Russian state television before Mr. Putin’s speech, but once he mentioned it, the clashes received wider coverage. Video footage was shown of security officers blasting the three-story school with grenade launchers and automatic-weapons fire.
Mr. Kadyrov suggested that the militants were connected to Doku Umarov, the longtime leader of the Chechen militants who was killed last year. Attacks that the group threatened against the Olympic Games in Sochi in February never materialized.
Islamic fighters in southern Russia are organized as the Caucasus Emirate, a pan-Caucasian movement that evolved from the initial Chechen nationalist and secular struggle for independence in the 1990s. The 20th anniversary of the start of the first Chechen war is Dec. 11.
“This could be a symbolic attack to show they can still organize something significant,” said Varvara Pakhomenko, an independent analyst of the region. “They need new supporters and new fighters.”
Dmitri Trenin, the head of the Carnegie Moscow Center, said in a Twitter post, “The night attack in Grozny looks senseless, except as an attempt to embarrass Putin hours before his annual address to Parliament.” He and others speculated that it might have been the handiwork of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS.
The new leader of the Caucasus Emirate, Aliaskhab Kebekov, has not publicly sworn allegiance to the Islamic State. But many Muslims from Chechnya and Dagestan, another republic in southern Russia, have gone to Syria to join the fight against Mr. Assad.
Videos and news reports since August have cited “Omar the Chechen,” a pseudonym for Tarkhan Batirashvili, a senior Islamic State commander from the Caucasus, as telling his father Russia was the next target after Iraq.
“He said, ‘Don’t worry, Dad, I’ll come home and show the Russians,’ ” Mr. Batirashvili’s father told Bloomberg News from his home in the Pankisi Gorge region of Georgia, on the Chechen border. “ ‘I have many thousands following me now, and I’ll get more. We’ll have our revenge against Russia.’ ”
In one video posted online, an unidentified fighter in a mud-spattered sedan said he wanted to “convey a message to Putin.”
“These are the Russian planes that you sent to Bashar,” the man said, referring to Mr. Assad. “Allah willing, we will take them back to your own turf and liberate Chechnya and the Caucasus.”
“The Islamic State is here to stay,” he added. “Your throne is being threatened by us.”
Source: The New York Times