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Gunbattle with Islamic militants leaves 20 dead in Chechnya

Three policemen were killed in the shooting.

Russia Restive Caucasus A publishing house building in flames. Source: AP/Press Association Images

POLICE WAGED HOURS-LONG gunbattles with Islamic militants who attacked Chechnya’s capital yesterday, leaving at least 20 people dead.

The attack has underscored Russia’s vulnerability just as President Vladimir Putin used patriotic and religious imagery in his state-of-the-nation address to defend his standoff with the West.

The clashes in Grozny, the city’s biggest in years, dented the image of stability created by Chechnya’s Kremlin-backed strongman after two separatist conflicts. The new violence raised fears of more attacks in Chechnya and widening unrest in the rest of Russia’s volatile North Caucasus region.

The Kavkaz Center website, a mouthpiece for Islamic militant groups operating in the North Caucasus, carried a link to a video message by an individual claiming responsibility for the attack.

The man in the video said he was operating on orders from Emir Khamzat, reportedly a pseudonym of Chechen warlord Aslan Byutukayev. The claim could not immediately be verified.

Russia Restive Caucasus Firefighters and emergency workers examine burned market pavilions. Source: AP/Press Association Images

The insurgents in Chechnya and other Caucasus regions want to create an independent state governed by their strict interpretation of Islamic law. Some Caucasus militants have traveled to Syria and Iraq to join up with the Islamic State group. IS has vowed to launch attacks in Russia, but there have been no indications to date that it has followed through.

The fighting in Grozny began about 1 am, when roughly 10 gunmen riding in three cars fired on traffic police who had stopped them for a check, killing three officers. Some of the militants then holed up in a nearby office building and exchanged gunfire with police who quickly cordoned the area.

The battle left the 10-story Press House, which housed local media offices, gutted by a blazing fire that also spread to a nearby street market.

Some gunmen fled to an empty school nearby. It took police more than 12 hours to kill 10 militants, according to Russian authorities, who also reported that 10 officers were killed and 28 wounded.

Russian state television showed video footage of police officers firing automatic weapons and grenade launchers at the three-story school, its windows left shattered and charred.

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