By Paul Tumelty
It is not the first time Nalchik has seen serious clashes with militants
The assault by gunmen in Kabardino-Balkaria on Thursday was claimed by a group called Yarmuk Jamaat.
It first surfaced in a statement published by a Chechen rebel website in July 2002.
However, the scale of the attacks suggests a co-ordinated operation between local and Chechnya-based militants, mirroring the June 2004 fighting in nearby Ingushetia, which involved many Ingush.
Indeed, Yarmuk reported their claim by classing themselves as part of a "Caucasus Front".
Russia's war against separatists in Chechnya has repeatedly spilled over into neighbouring republics.
Ingushetia experienced large-scale Chechen rebel incursions in June 2004, then in September that year came the mass hostage-taking at a school in Beslan, North Ossetia. Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev was held responsible for these attacks.
The Caucasus Front was announced in May 2005 by the new Chechen rebel leader Abdul-Khalim Sadulayev - the successor to Aslan Maskhadov - marking a shift in Chechen rebel strategy.
He named Kabardino-Balkaria as a new front, appointing Emir Seifullah to lead the militant struggle there.
Maskhadov had sought to limit the war to Chechnya and tried to restrain his commanders - often unsuccessfully - from launching incursions into neighbouring republics.
According to Chechen rebel sources, Yarmuk was founded by 30-year-old, university-educated Muslim Atayev, from Kabardino-Balkaria's rural Elbrus district.
Russian security services believe Atayev received military training from Chechen field commander Ruslan Gelayev.
Atayev then reportedly took command of a newly-formed unit of around 30 Kabardinians and Balkars, who helped Gelayev's forces attack Galashki village in Ingushetia in autumn 2002.
Later he is said to have returned to Kabardino-Balkaria with his remaining men and launched a recruitment drive.
Yarmuk has called on Muslims to engage in a jihad (holy war) against the "amoral puppet" authorities "imposed" by the Russians in the North Caucasus.
They accuse Russia of historically oppressing their people and blame Russian influence for contemporary social ills, such as drug abuse and corruption.
Yarmuk has stressed that its members are drawn from both the republic's main ethnic groups, rather than just the small, historically oppressed Balkar nation.
They claim not to target civilians and say they are ready to cease operations on two conditions:
"(1)The president, government and parliament of the Republic of Kabardino-Balkaria must officially recognise and condemn the Russian genocide against the Chechen people and (2) must demand that Russian President Vladimir Putin immediately withdraw troops from Ichkeria [Chechnya] and resume peace negotiations."
Yarmuk's actions have triggered a tough response from the authorities, who have closed down all but one mosque - and it now operates under strict police supervision.
In January 2005 the Russian security forces killed Atayev and a number of his associates, but sporadic violence has continued.
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