Renewed Fears of Militancy in Kabardino-Balkaria
Police patrol the streets and comb the mountains in search of the armed Islamic forces that raided Nalchik last year.
By Dana Tsei in Nalchik (CRS No. 347, 6-July-06)
Kabardino-Balkaria has been on a state of alert over the last month as the authorities step up efforts to arrest Islamic militants.
Eight months after a bloody attack on the city of Nalchik, which left more than 100 people dead, the authorities say they are still rounding up suspects linked to the violence. One leading suspect, Zaur Guchev, who figures on a list of the 24 most wanted men, was arrested on July 3.
The week of June 5 to 12 was especially tense, with police patrolling in increased-strength units on all the main roads and public spaces in Nalchik.
Officials denied rumours that police were searching for notorious Chechen militant leader Shamil Basayev. But in the streets, policemen were heard telling people, “We’re looking for Basayev”, and there was talk that he had been sighted in the republic.
No evidence has come to light that Basayev was inside Kabardino-Balkaria in June, but he has paid visits there in the past. He narrowly escaped capture or death in 2003, when he was almost cornered in a house in Baksan, a town 20 kilometres west of Nalchik. He himself claims he was present in the suburbs of Nalchik shortly before last October’s violence.
The Islamist website Kavkaz Center recently published photographs that were purportedly taken by Basayev in Kabardino-Balkaria in April. The photos showed an eclipse of the sun, and the duration of the eclipse shown in the pictures suggested they had been taken in the republic.
On June 6, a big police search operation took place in the mountains near Mount Elbrus, and the new interior minister of Kabardino-Balkaria, Yury Tomchak, said various branches of the Russian security forces were taking part. Local government officials said all access roads and footpaths around the area were blocked on the day of the operation.
Two days later, the interior ministry said it had confiscated weapons illegally held by a 32-year-old man from Baksan.
Tomchak was brought in as a new broom by Kabardino-Balkaria’s president Arsen Kanokov, and he has already adopted a much more open style than his predecessor as interior minister.
On June 5, the day before the sweep in the Elbrus region, the interior ministry released a list of 24 suspects wanted in connection with the October attacks.
At the head of the list was 40-year-old Artur (also known as Musa) Mukhozhev, who is “emir” (head) of the “jamaat” or Islamic group of Kabardino-Balkaria. According to Irina Babich, a scholar who has studied the rise of Islam in the republic, Mukhozhev has the support of around 10,000 young Muslims.
Mukhozhev has not taken responsibility for the October attack and made no statement about it. An associate, who did not give his name, told IWPR, “If Musa had known, then thousands, not hundreds of Muslims would have taken part.”
Information about Mukhozhev’s whereabouts is sketchy, and he is variously reported to be in the Middle East, dead or still operating underground in Kabardino-Balkaria.
Number two on the list is 30-year-old Anzor Astemirov. A former student at Riyadh University and correspondent for the Arabic-language television channel Al-Jazeera, Astemirov was regarded as an educated figure from a Kabardinian noble family before his name began featuring in reports about militant activities.
Last summer, Astemirov declared that he had taken the nom-de-guerre Seifullah and joined up with Basayev, who named him “military emir of the Kabardino-Balkarian sector of the Caucasian front”.
Unlike Mukhozhev, Astemirov has claimed responsibility for the attack on government buildings in Nalchik last October. He regularly makes statements on the Kavkaz Center website, and says that the jamaat of Kabardino-Balkaria is continuing its fight against the authorities.
The wanted list contains a number of discrepancies, one of which is the inclusion of 24-year-old Azamat Kanchukoyev, even though he was also named as having been killed in the October attack.
Because the attack, in which armed insurgents launched simultaneous assaults on several government and police buildings in Nalchik, has been officially classified as an act of terrorism, the bodies of at least 90 attackers killed during the fighting have not been released for burial. Kanchukoyev’s parents identified their son among the remains still being held in refrigerated wagons.
The list also contains the names of two men from Kabardino-Balkaria who were formerly held at the United States military detention centre at Guantanamo Bay. One of the men, Rasul Kudayev, is in custody and is due to stand trial for his alleged part in the October attack. The other, Ruslan Orujev, has been in hiding since October 2004,
Another name on the list is Ruslan Nakhushev, the director of the Institute of Islamic Studies in Nalchik who has been missing since he was interrogated by the Russian security service, the FSB, in November last year. Nakhushev is a former KGB major who got close to Islamic opposition leaders and gave them legal advice. Mukhozhev and Astemirov served as deputy directors of the institute he founded.
In an unusually frank statement last month, the deputy interior minister of Kabardino-Balkaria, General Yury Kokov, said his ministry was failing in its mission to cut off sources of funding to terrorist cells. He said his colleagues were under-estimating the number of militants in Kabardino-Balkaria, and blamed endemic corruption for their failure to prevent acts of terrorism.
Dana Tsei is the pseudonym of a journalist working in Nalchik.