The violence broke out on the eve of President Vladimir Putin's annual state of the nation address, prompting speculation on social networks about its possible political implications, with multiple Twitter users reporting helicopters viewings in central Moscow and Putin's motorcade supposedly pulling up into the Kremlin in the middle of the night.
IMAGES: The aftermath of the attacks in #Grozny, #Russia. Graphic 18+ pic.twitter.com/q1zIp0iUrc
— Military Studies (@ArmedResearch) December 4, 2014
The so-called Press House in Grozny – which housed many media outlets in the republic – was seized by militants early in the night, and gutted by flames in the following hours, Kadyrov told Ekho Moskvy radio station early Thursday morning.
Kadyrov also said another group of militants had occupied a local school, which, according to the school's deputy principal Islam Dzhabrailov, was vacant at the time, RIA Novosti news agency reported.
VIDEO: Russian forces shelling a building in Grozny Chechnya where Chechen rebels are located. http://t.co/tpS3utcxqD pic.twitter.com/WumKOOSoi1
— PzFeed Top News (@PzFeed) December 4, 2014
The Chechen leader, who earlier that night urged residents of Grozny not to leave their homes, had pledged on Instagram the militants would be suppressed by the morning, claiming that the city remained mostly “calm.”
Heavily ArmedKadyrov said the militants had been “very seriously armed” with machine guns and grenade launchers – a statement that seemed to fly in the face of earlier repeated assurances that his administration would quickly retake control of the city streets.
Estimates of the scope of the violence and the militant forces diverged widely, with Kadyrov initially putting the number of men who seized the Press House at “supposedly five-six people,” according to a comment on his Instagram account, later raising the number to “between eight and nine” in his interview with Ekho Moskvy. He did not specify how many militants might be inside the school building.
Islamist groups claimed on social networks that forces numbering in the hundreds were supposedly waging battles around the city.
Islamist group Vilayat Noxciyco
Islamist group Vilayat Noxciyco, describing itself as the “mujahideen [jihad fighters] of the Caucasus Emirate,” claimed responsibility for the attack. The Caucasus Emirate is an militant group that seeks to establish an Islamic state based on the strict Sharia law throughout the region.
“Battles are currently going on,” the group said on YouTube. “Many mujahideen have entered the city. This is an act of retribution … and we shall fight to the death.”
Shortly afterward, the group's account on Russia's largest social network, VKontakte, was blocked, but its claim has been reposted by other users on social networks.
Thursday's clashes took place just days before the 20th anniversary of the start of Chechnya’s first separatist war in December 1994. An Islamist drive was not yet a major force in the first war, during which separatists primarily sought secession from Russia, but emerged powerfully in the second conflict, which began in 1999.
After the wars ended, Kadyrov, a Kremlin loyalist, has been ruling the republic since 2007.
Kadyrov Urges Calm
Kadyrov had sought to downplay the violence throughout the night, even while photos posted online by Grozny residents showed flames billowing on the top floors of the press house, and videos carried sounds of heavy gunfire. Another video showed a car engulfed by flames, which Grozny inhabitants claimed was a police car that had exploded during nighttime battles.
“All talk about militants running the show somewhere in the city are absolutely false,” Kadyrov said on Instagram. He added that the fighters “might have come from another region,” claiming that no armed groups “capable of this” remained in Chechnya.
“The Press House has burned down, but we will build another one, even more beautiful than what we had,” he added.
Kadyrov claimed Thursday's conflict arose when a road police patrol tried to stop a car at a checkpoint near the capital, whose passengers then opened fire. Three police officers were killed in the altercation, he said.
Russia's independent Dozhd television cited an unidentified Grozny inhabitant reporting an explosion shortly before midnight, and then gunfire continuing intermittently during subsequent hours. The man also said that the authorities dispatched armored personnel carriers to the city center.
The unidentified resident also claimed that the militants had ordered taxi cabs to pick them up from Chechnya's Urus Martan region, then overpowered the drivers and rode the cars to the massive mosque complex in the center of Grozny, where the first gun battle erupted, according to Dozhd.
The mosque, called the Heart of Chechnya, can host up to 10,000 worshipers and is widely seen as a symbol of Kadyrov's attempts to restore the republic that had been ravaged by the separatist wars.