ROSTOV-ON-DON, Russia – Hundreds of security forces stormed an apartment building Thursday in southern Russia, killing seven suspected Islamic extremists linked to Chechen rebels and ending a two-day standoff.
Black smoke billowed from the building in Nalchik, the regional capital of the province of Kabardino-Balkariya, near Chechnya, as police and Interior Ministry troops fired automatic weapons and hurled grenades. The gunmen returned fire, wounding two police officers, the Interior Ministry said.
After a five-hour shootout, authorities found seven bodies, Interior Ministry spokesman Alexei Polyansky said.
The ITAR-Tass news agency said the wife of one of the militants and their 8-month-old child were among those killed. Some police officials said up to four of the dead were women. Nikolai Shepel, Russia’s deputy prosecutor general, denied that a child’s body had been found.
Security officials said the militants were believed to belong to Yarmuk, a radical Islamic group affiliated with Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev and the target of previous law-enforcement efforts in Kabardino-Balkariya. Nikolai Shepel, Russia’s deputy prosecutor general, said one of the dead was the leader of Yarmuk, Muslim Atayev.
Officials said the suspects, who had been holed up in two apartments, had been seeking safe passage out of Nalchik in the North Caucasus, 870 miles south of Moscow. It was unclear whether there were other demands.
About 600 residents of the building and adjacent blocks had been evacuated.
Government forces converged on the area on Tuesday, after local residents reported a group of armed men had entered the building.
Yarmuk was linked to last month’s attack on an office belonging to the Federal Drug Control in Nalchik, when raiders killed four agency employees, looted its arsenal and set the office ablaze. Officials said some of the militants in the building had taken part in December’s attack.
The siege in Nalchik followed security sweeps this week in three regions of the troubled North Caucasus — Kabardino-Balkariya, Karachaevo-Cherkessiya and Ingushetia. More than five dozen people were detained on suspicion of extremist links and a large amount of weaponry was seized.
Russia’s southern provinces have been plagued by a spillover violence from Chechnya, including September’s school hostage-taking in the city of Beslan in nearby North Ossetia.