Security forces in Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, have stormed two buildings, including a school, in fierce gun battles with militants that left at least 19 people dead.
The fighting erupted just hours before Russian president Vladimir Putin gave his annual state of the nation address in Moscow.
In it, Mr Putin said he was confident that local Chechen forces were capable of dealing with the “rebels”, who he suggested were receiving support from abroad.
The national anti-terrorist committee said militants travelling in three cars entered Grozny at 1am, killing three traffic police at a checkpoint.
They then occupied the multi- storey Press House in the centre of the city. The federal agency said six gunmen were killed inside the building, which was destroyed by a fire that spread to a nearby market.
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More gunmen were later found in a school and security forces were sent to “liquidate” them, the agency said. No students or teachers were in the school when it was seized by the militants, vice-principal Islam Dzhabrailov told local media.
Russian state television showed video of security officers firing automatic weapons and grenade launchers at the three-storey school, its windows left shattered and charred.
Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who went to Moscow for Mr Putin’s address, said afterwards the security operation was over and his forces had killed at least nine militants.
The national anti-terrorist committee said ten officers were killed and 28 wounded.
Mr Kadyrov said the militants were linked to Doku Umarov, a Chechen Islamic militant leader who died last year.
Grozny has not seen significant violence for several years under Mr Kadyrov’s forceful security measures. In October, however, a suicide bomber blew himself up outside a concert hall in Grozny, killing five policemen and wounding 12 others as the city celebrated his birthday.
Dmitry Trenin, who heads the Carnegie Moscow Centre, Tweeted that “the night attack in Grozny looks senseless, except as an attempt to embarrass Putin hours before his annual address to parliament”.
Mr Putin was already was under pressure to reassure Russians as fears grow over inflation and a plummeting rouble.
Life News, a news outlet believed to have links to Russian security services, cited law enforcement officials as saying about 15 people seized three cars late yesterday in the village of Shalazhi and drove to Grozny.
The Kavkaz Centre website, a mouthpiece for Islamic militant groups in the North Caucasus, carried a link to a video message
The man in the video claimed to be operating under orders from Chechen Islamist leader Aslan Byutukayev, known to his followers as Emir Khamzat.
Mr Kadyrov has been widely denounced for human rights abuses, including allegations of killing opponents. He has also imposed Islamic restrictions, including mandatory headscarves for women in public. In an Instagram message, he boasted of running the Press House operation. “Not one bandit managed to get out,” he wrote.
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