At least 18 people were killed and 30 wounded Thursday during armed clashes between police and unidentified gunmen in the capital of Chechyna in southern Russia, officials said.
By early afternoon the shooting in Grozny had subsided, the National Antiterror Committee reported, with “the active phase of the operation over and all gunmen destroyed.” The dead included eight gunmen and 10 police officers, authorities said.
A militant Islamist group called Imarat Kavkaz, which is outlawed in Russia, claimed responsibility for the attack, the business website RosBusinessConsulting reported Thursday afternoon. Russian security forces have long battled Islamist separatists in the republic and other areas of the south.
Chechnya President Ramzan Kadyrov said the attackers “might have come from another region.”
“The gunmen were armed quite seriously, they had everything they needed in their arsenal including machine guns and grenade launchers,” Kadyrov said in an interview on the radio station Echo of Moscow. He added that authorities had been expecting an attack and were prepared, though the assault was anticipated for Dec. 12, Russia’s Constitution Day.
The gunmen arrived in Grozny shortly after midnight in three cars and attacked a traffic police checkpoint, killing at least three officers, Kadyrov said. The attackers then barricaded themselves in the nearby House of Print, the offices for several print media outlets. The building caught on fire as the police surrounded the building and a shootout ensued.
Mairbek Musayev, a resident, said he was awakened in the middle of the night by the sound of explosions and shooting.
“The police were in every yard and street in our neighborhood as they were shooting at the [House of Print], and its upper floors were already on fire,” Musayev said in a phone interview to The Times.
Musayev said sporadic shooting and explosions were still heard in the streets outside his house at 9 a.m., and police told residents not to leave their houses until the end of the operation.
The gunmen later seized a school building.
“The [gunmen] came there before classes started and there was no one,” Islam Dzhabrailov, deputy director of School No. 20 said to radio station Moscow Speaking. “The watchman was supposed to stay overnight but he went home too.”
As prime minister in 2000, Vladimir Putin launched a war to suppress separatists in Chechnya, an operation that brought the Russian leader popularity and the presidency and left Grozny and some Chechen towns and villages in ruins. Human rights organizations and investigative journalists more than once have accused security forces of violating laws, carrying out torture and indiscriminately killing civilians.
In his State of the Union address Thursday in the Kremlin, Putin implied that some Western powers were supporting terrorism in Russia.
“We remember quite well those who practically openly supported separatism here during that period and called the murderers whose arms were covered in blood up their elbows rebels and received them at the highest level,” the Russian president said in his televised speech. “I am convinced the local law enforcement will be up to the task. Let’s support them.”