Militants have attacked buildings in Chechnya’s capital, Grozny, prompting gun battles that left at least nine police officers and six insurgents dead.
The fighting broke out hours before the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, gave his annual state of the nation address in Moscow.
The Kremlin-backed Chechen leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, has used tough and often violent security methods in recent years, and attacks by Islamic insurgents are now rare. But the region remains volatile, and attacks in the neighbouring republics of Dagestan and Ingushetia are more frequent.
According Russia’s anti-terrorist committee, three cars carrying militants drove into Grozny overnight, killing three traffic police officers who tried to stop them.
The operation against the gunmen left 10 security officers dead in total and injured 28, the committee said in a statement quoted by Russian news agencies.
The committee said militants then occupied Grozny’s Press House, which was later destroyed, killing six of the gunmen.
The gunmen later holed themselves up in a school, though no students or teachers were present at the time, RIA Novosti quoted its vice principal as saying. Russian state television showed video footage of security officers firing automatic weapons and grenade launchers at the three-story building.
All schools in Grozny were closed on Thursday and a “counter-terrorist operation” status was introduced in the city by Russian authorities, which allows for enhanced security measures and the use of force.
Kadyrov, who travelled to Moscow for Putin’s address, told journalists afterwards that the security operation was over. “We have found the bodies of nine [militants], but they [the security officers] are continuing to search,” the Interfax news agency quoted Kadyrov as saying.
Earlier on Thursday, Kadyrov uploaded a photograph on Instagram of what appeared to be the lower half of a dead body on the street.
“Dogs will die like dogs,” he wrote. “The operation to destroy the bandits is entering its final phase. Six terrorists have already been destroyed and not one of them will be allowed to leave. I am personally leading the operation.”
A video posted to the Kavkaz Centre website, which North Caucasus Islamic insurgents often use for communication, featured a man speaking Chechen who said the gunmen were acting on the orders of the rebel leader, Emir Khamzat.
“There are already results; Allah has destroyed them using our hand,” says the man in the clip.
Putin addressed the violence in Grozny during his state of the nation speech, describing the attackers as “rebels”, and suggesting that they were receiving support from abroad.