Chechen Police Battle Rebels Before Putin Address to Nation

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People Pass Burnt Out Kiosks in Grozny
People walk past burnt out kiosks in Grozny, on Dec. 4. Photographer: Elena Fitkulina/AFP via Getty Images

Militants attacked a police outpost in the Chechen capital Grozny, sparking the region’s deadliest fighting since 2010 hours before Russian President Vladimir Putin began his annual speech to both houses of parliament.

Three cars of armed men attacked a traffic-police post and were then surrounded by authorities in the House of Press in downtown Grozny, according to Russia’s National Anti-Terrorist Committee. Ten police officers died and 28 were wounded in the fighting, a spokesman for the committee said by phone from Moscow. Ten militants were killed, the spokesman said, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with policy.

Putin described the attackers in his speech as foreign-backed “rebels.” Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov apologized during a meeting with Putin for “slightly spoiling” the day. As prime minister in 1999, Putin used a war in Chechnya to lay the foundations of his image as a leader capable of restoring Russia’s might.

“You have nothing to be ashamed of, because you personally and your personnel acted promptly and professionally,” Putin told Kadyrov, a former rebel who switched sides and was picked by the Russian president to run the region in 2007. Chechnya’s law-enforcement agencies “showed themselves to be true professionals and heroes.”

Deadliest Attack

All the insurgents were killed and Grozny is now repairing the damage, Kadyrov said earlier in televised remarks. Kadyrov, who said he’d overseen the anti-terrorist operations before traveling to Moscow, was speaking in the Kremlin after Putin’s speech.

The early morning attack is probably the deadliest in Chechnya since at least 18 people died in an assault on Kadyrov’s native village of Tsentoroi in 2010, according to Grigory Shvedov, who runs Moscow-based news and research center Caucasian Knot.

Guns, grenades and 24 improvised explosive devices were found in the buildings where the insurgents sought shelter, the National Anti-Terrorist Committee said. A furniture store manager died of smoke inhalation from a fire in the House of Press during the operation, RIA Novosti reported, citing an unidentified security guard.

“Putin is in conspiracy mode, so he might think that the attack in Grozny is a kind of a ‘hello’ from the West,” Gleb Pavlovsky, a former Kremlin adviser, said by phone.

Two Wars

Chechnya was the location of two wars between separatists and federal troops after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and has remained volatile despite Kadyrov’s efforts to quell the insurgency. In October, eight people were killed and 14 wounded in Chechnya as a result of the armed conflict, according to Caucasian Knot.

Putin’s annual address in Moscow was closely watched as Russia’s economy is threatening to slip into recession because of the collapse of oil prices and sanctions imposed by the U.S. and its allies over the conflict in Ukraine. He didn’t mention oil prices in his speech, focusing instead on Crimea and cutting unnecessary bureaucracy to stimulate growth.

“Last night’s attack in Grozny was very large scale and is an indication that Kadyrov is losing control of Chechnya,” Shvedov said. “The timing may have been connected with Putin’s speech, and also the 20th anniversary of the start of the first Chechen war.”

Militants who’ve fought for Islamic State in Syria and Iraq have been returning to the North Caucasus region and fomenting the unrest, according to Shvedov.

About 1,000 Russian-speaking jihadists are fighting for Islamic State, representing about half of the group’s foreign fighters, Elena Suponina, a Middle East analyst and adviser to the director of Moscow’s Institute for Strategic Studies, said in October.

“It may be IS’s first strike against Russia,” Dmitri Trenin, head of the Carnegie Moscow Center, said on Twitter. “The night attack in Grozny looks senseless, except as an attempt to embarrass Putin hours before his annual address.”

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