CHERMEN, Russia — In coordinated attacks, heavily-armed militants attacked police headquarters, border checkpoints and government offices in a Russian region bordering warring Chechnya, authorities said Tuesday. At least 22 people were killed, including three high-ranking officials, and dozens were wounded.
The fighters seized the Interior Ministry in Nazran, the largest city in Ingushetia, and attacked the border guards' headquarters there as well as in two villages near Chechnya shortly before midnight Monday, emergency officials said.
The Ingush medical center said that 59 injured people were hospitalized and 16 of them had died. The ITAR-Tass news agency, citing law enforcement officials, said five of the dead were policemen.
Eyewitnesses reported at least six more people dead in an attack on a border guards' post on the outskirts of Nazran.
An official from the Ingush Interior Ministry said it was not immediately clear who the attackers were but said some of them were shouting "Allahu akhbar" — a frequent cry of Chechnya's separatist rebels as their insurgency increasingly comes under the influence of radical Islam. Ingush police estimated that up to 100 militants were involved in the assaults.
Dozens of Russian anti-terrorist special forces officers and hundreds of servicemen headed into Nazran from neighboring North Ossetia in a long column of armored personnel carriers and army trucks shortly after dawn Tuesday.
Fighting from the 4-year-old Chechen war has occasionally spilled into Ingushetia, highlighting the Russian military's ineffectiveness against the rebels despite having heavier weapons and far superior manpower.
But the latest attack comes after recent statements by separatist leaders indicating plans to step up military actions outside of Chechnya.
"We are planning to change tactics. Before, we concentrated our efforts on acts of sabotage, but soon we are planing to start active military actions," Chechnya's separatist president Aslan Maskhadov said in an interview on Radio Liberty last week.
A three-man crew from Russia's NTV television came upon some of the presumed attackers, wearing masks and speaking accented Russian, at a border crossing as the crew tried to enter Nazran from North Ossetia.
"Out of the dark, a voice says 'Stop, put your hands on the hood,' said NTV correspondent Maxim Berezin. "A man carrying an automatic weapon came up. 'Who are you?' 'We're from NTV.' He took a few steps back, as if to shoot us.
"Then he said, 'Say that we are the Martyr's Brigade,' I don't remember of whom, Abu, Alyua, I don't remember what he said. 'We have shot everyone here. Go and announce that.' "
Berezin saw the bodies of at least six men in camouflage — the uniform of security service members — lying outside a minivan.
There was heavy fighting in Karabulak, where the militants attacked a border guard and customs post and a police station, and the assailants seized a police checkpoint in the village of Yandare, Ingush emergency officials said.
Acting Ingush Interior Minister Abukar Koshtoyev was wounded in the first minutes of the fighting in Nazran and was taken to Vladikavkaz in North Ossetia, where he died, the Ingush Interior Ministry official said. A convoy of three ambulances later could be seen speeding into Vladikavkaz from Ingushetia.
Ingush emergency officials said that the health minister and a deputy interior minister of Ingushetia had also been killed in the fighting in Nazran.
Police at a checkpoint on the North Ossetian border said that a 10-vehicle Russian military convoy had been ambushed en route to Nazran. Three vehicles from the column were later seen returning to Vladikavkaz, the North Ossetian capital, carrying an unclear number of wounded.
By early Tuesday, Russian forces had fought off the rebels attacking the border guards' headquarters in Nazran, Ingush emergency officials said. The third floor of the Interior Ministry building was virtually destroyed, and the building and the ministry's arsenals were on fire.
As dawn broke, there was still sporadic shooting in the city and in Karabulak.
A heavy firefight was also reported in Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan, which borders Chechnya to the east. However, local officials said there was no apparent link with the fighting in Ingushetia.
Although Chechnya is a largely Muslim region in overwhelmingly Christian Russia, the first of Chechnya's two wars was an essentially secular conflict. However, after Russian troops pulled out when Chechen rebels fought them to a standstill, the separatists increasingly took on a specifically Islamic mantle.
Monday's fighting came as Russian and Moscow-backed Chechen officials prepared for an August election to replace Kremlin-backed Chechen President Akhmad Kadyrov, who was killed in a bomb attack last month. The Kremlin has put forward its candidate, Chechen Interior Minister Alu Alkhanov.
Some Russians noted that the attacks on Ingushetia came on the eve of June 22 — the 63rd anniversary of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, a date engraved in Russians' minds.