Hundreds of black-clad, mostly elderly people gathered Sunday outside the prosecutors' office in the southern Russian town of Nalchik, demanding release of the bodies of their relatives killed during a raid by alleged Islamic extremists.
"Give back the bodies of our children so that we can bury them," said a petition the crowd passed to prosecutors.
The demand came two days after militants attacked police and government buildings in Nalchik, sparking fighting that left at least 139 people dead, including 94 alleged attackers, according to official tallies.
Many feared that they would never see their relatives' bodies. According to Russian law, terrorists' bodies are not returned to their families for burial, and some in the crowd alleged that their relatives had been unfairly identified as participants in the militant raid.
Asya Zhekamukhova, 21, said she wanted to collect the body of her 26-year-old husband, Vadim Zhekamukhov, who had worked as a driver for a veterinary clinic. When the shooting started Thursday, she said, he rushed to a nursery school to pick up his nephew, and was killed.
"He was not a Wahhabi, he despised them," Zhekamukhova said, using the usual term for Islamic extremists in Russia. "He never carried any guns, but when we found his body there was a gun lying nearby."
A delegation of three elderly men from the crowd presented the petition to prosecutors. Deputy regional prosecutor Asker Masayev asked the crowd to return to their homes and wait until Monday because investigators were still working to separate the bodies of the attackers from those of accidental victims, said Mukhamed Zhekamukhov, a relative of the driver's who was included in the delegation.
Meanwhile, another crowd of hundreds of agitated relatives stood vigil outside Nalchik's main morgue in the suburb of Dubki, awaiting the results of identification and collect bodies for burial. Many police and security officers stood by.
The region of Kabardino-Balkariya has been long rattled by spillover violence from nearby Chechnya, as well as local criminal elements. Earlier this year, police in Nalchik twice launched assaults on alleged Islamic militants holed up in apartments.
Some Muslims accuse law enforcement authorities of persecuting innocent believers who worship outside the officially sanctioned mosques, falsely branding them militants and planting compromising evidence such as drugs or weapons to ensure their prosecution.
Outside the morgue, 47-year-old businessman Zalim Kardanov echoed those complaints.
"These guys were brought to despair by police unlawfulness, and (the attacks) were an act of suicide. These young men went to die the way whales throw themselves to the shore," he said amid the wailing crowd.
Thursday's assaults in Nalchik were the first such brazen raids in the region, with scores of young men launching a bold daylight attack and apparently seeking to seize weapons and ammunition, similar to what happened last year in another Caucasus city, Nazran. Most raiders apparently were local.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said that none of the militants had "invaded" Nalchik, the ITAR-Tass news agency reported from India, where he was attending joint military exercises.
"All the militants were already in Nalchik as 'peaceful citizens," Ivanov was quoted as saying, apparently denying Chechen rebel claims of involvement.
"No one had arrived in Nalchik from the outside or brought weapons there. That was certainly the underground. Someone gave an order, Kalashnikov guns were taken out and militants got in their Zhiguli (cars) and rushed to neighboring areas as ordered," Ivanov said.
The regional president's spokeswoman, Dhamilya Khagarova, said 94 militants were killed and 15 suspects detained. Russian Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev said Sunday on state-controlled television that 33 law-enforcement officers and 12 civilians were killed, AP reported. V.A.