A massive gun battle raged in a town in Russia's turbulent Caucasus region on Thursday after armed men, described by police as "religious extremists", attacked police buildings and other government buildings.
Interfax news agency said the group staged a wave of simultaneous attacks on strategic buildings housing Russian forces in Nalchik, main city of the Muslim Kabardino-Balkaria region, which is near rebel Chechnya.
"At the present moment, federal forces have clashed with certain armed bands. Steps are being taken to eliminate the bandits," Nikolai Shepel, deputy state prosecutor for the region, was quoted as saying by Interfax.
"Fighting is going on everywhere. The attackers are trying to seize cars and burst their way out of the town," an unnamed military source was quoted as saying by Interfax.
Sources said there had been deaths among the civilian population. "It's a little too soon to say how many," one source was quoted as saying by Interfax.
Kabardino-Balkaria is a Muslim region in the Caucasus that borders the North Ossetia province where Chechen militants attacked a school in the town of Beslan in September 2004, resulting in the deaths of 331 people, half of them children, reports Reuters.
Hours earlier, reports from the city painted a much different picture.
Black smoke was seen pouring out of a police station at the Interior Ministry. Other fires were reported in Nalchik.
"Security forces are conducting an operation to eliminate the guerillas," Interfax news agency reported, quoting a high-ranking Kabardino-Balkarian Emergency Situations Ministry source.
Itar-Tass news agency reported security forces had killed three gunmen, confiscating a number of weapons and grenades. At least one member of the police force was wounded in the fighting.
There were civilian casualties as well, but exact numbers were not known, said Interfax, quoting army headquarters in Nalchik.
Authorities said children were evacuated from a number of schools in the city center. The rebels were repelled from attacking Nalchik airport, Interfax reported.
Federal forces are said to be surrounding the city, located in a majority Muslim area, state-run TV reported, and were stopping vehicles on the outskirts of Nalchik, looking for gunmen who might be trying to flee the city.
"A law enforcement source earlier said that the gunmen launched the attack after security forces detained a group of Wahhabites, whom their supporters are currently trying to release," Interfax reported. The Wahhabites are a sect of Islam, informs CNN.
Photo: Vesti P.T.