The city of Nalchik, capital of the province of Kabardino-Balkaria, looked like a war zone as camouflaged security personnel ranging from local police to elite federal troops backed by armoured vehicles exchanged fire with armed men who attacked eight locations in the city.
Officials said the situation in Nalchik had been brought under control late on Thursday but acknowledged that security forces were still in a standoff with some men holed up in buildings at two locations in the city, including a police station where hostages were being held.
They gave no details on how many armed men were still at large or how many hostages were held, but estimates on the numbers of fighters involved in the early-morning assault on the city ranged from 100 to 300.
Kabardino-Balkaria's President Arsen Kanokov said at least 62
people had been killed: 50 attackers and 12 civilians. Later the interior ministry said 61 attackers had died and 17 had been
Officials say 61 attackers have
been killed by the security forces
Russian officials spoke of 12 deaths among security forces and 12 civilians killed.
Hospital sources put the number of injured at between 115 and 150. But conditions in the city made it impossible to confirm any of these numbers.
Russian President Vladimir Putin dispatched Dmitry Kozak, his special envoy on the North Caucasus appointed after last year's Beslan school hostage siege, to the region and ordered that the city be sealed off to stop fighters from escaping. He ordered that anyone who put up armed resistance was to be shot on the spot.
"Anyone who puts up resistance with weapons in his hands must be liquidated," Russian Deputy Interior Minister Alexander Chekalin said after a meeting with Putin outside Moscow. "This order from the president will be carried out."
The attacks undermined Kremlin claims of control in the volatile North Caucasus region.
Kabardino-Balkaria is one of seven Caucasus republics belonging to the Russian Federation, Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia being among the others. It has a population of about 800,000 of whom about 45% are Kabards, Muslims of Turkic origin, and 35% Russians.
During the day, Central Nalchik has been sealed off and police cars equipped with loudspeakers circulated in the area, broadcasting messages to local residents to evacuate.
Nalchik is 150km west of Grozny, the capital of the breakaway republic of Chechnya.
"There are two hotspots where there are organised clashes. One is the No 3 police precinct, where unfortunately there are hostages," Dmitry Kozak said on state television.
"An operation is now under way," he said.
NTV footage shows injured
police officers being evacuated
Earlier, Interfax news agency said the group staged a wave of simultaneous attacks on strategic buildings housing Russian forces in Nalchik.
Chechen separatists took responsibility for the attack.
The Kavkaz-Center Web, considered a voice for fighters loyal to Chechen commander Shamil Basayev, said it had received a short message claiming responsibility on behalf of the Caucasus Front, which it said was part of the Chechen separatist armed forces and which includes Yarmuk, an armed Muslim group based in Kabardino-Balkariya.
RIA Novosti agency later quoted a regional security source as saying the attacks had been beaten off and a hunt was under way to track down those responsible.
The Interfax news agency reported that security forces also repelled an attack against the city's airport.
At least three suspected fighters were killed, a duty officer at the southern Russian district office of the interior ministry said.
"There are two hotspots where there are organised clashes. One is the No 3 police precinct, where unfortunately there are hostages"
Presidential envoy to southern Russia
He said the fighting began after police in Nalchik received an anonymous telephoned tip that a group of about 10 armed fighters had entered the city, and police and security forces launched a special operation to capture them.
A source in the Kabardino-Balkariya police department said three police units in the city had been attacked by unknown assailants on Thursday morning.
Intense shooting from automatic rifles and grenade-launchers and could be heard in the centre of the city. The North Caucasus department on fighting terrorism and city police unit No 2 are located behind School No 5.
Interfax reported that armed men had launched simultaneous attacks on the regional headquarters of the interior ministry and the Federal Security Service, as well as a number of other buildings.
Citing an unidentified source in law-enforcement structures, Interfax said the battle was sparked by the detention of a group of adherents of Wahhabi Islam, and that their fellow believers were trying to free them.
It said that federal forces had surrounded Nalchik.
Kabardino-Balkaria is a Muslim region in the Caucasus that borders the North Ossetia province where Chechen separatists attacked a school in the town of Beslan in September 2004, resulting in the deaths of 331 people, half of them children.
The hand of armed Muslim groups
is suspected in Nalchik's firefight
Chechen separatist leader Abdul-Khalid Sadulayev has tried to set up what he calls a Caucasus Front since he took over the leadership of the movement in March, and said attacks in other Muslim regions would be coordinated with those by his own forces.
The attack on Nalchik is also reminiscent of an operation in June 2004 when pro-Chechen fighters attacked police buildings in Nazran and effectively seized control of Ingushetia - near Kabardino-Balkaria - for several hours.
About 60 people, many of them police, were killed in that attack.
Kabardino-Balkariya, along with other southern Russian regions, has seen a rise in armed Muslim movements and violence targeting police, soldiers and other law-enforcement officials in recent years linked to the festering decade-old guerrilla conflict in breakaway Chechnya.
In December, armed men raided the regional branch of the federal Drug Control Agency in Nalchik, killing four employees, looting an arsenal and setting the office ablaze.
Putin has ordered security forces to deal more severely with suspected fighters in the south. Law-enforcement agencies have launched a series of sweeps targeting suspected extremists outside Chechnya.