Russian troops have poured into Ingushetia in southern Russia in pursuit of suspected Chechen rebels. The rebels attacked the capital city overnight, leaving at least 46 people dead and dozens injured. President Vladimir Putin ordered the military to find and destroy the insurgents.
Officials say up to 200 heavily armed fighters launched the attack on government buildings and police stations in Ingushetia, which shares a border with Chechnya.
The rebels overran several border guard posts and briefly seized key buildings including the interior ministry headquarters in Ingushetia's capital, Nazran.
Among those killed in the attack was the interior minister of Ingushetia, other officials and a large number of policemen.
"We felt a terrible vibration while sitting in the yard of our house and did not dare go anywhere," said an eyewitness to the fighting describing what happened. She said "the walls of the house were trembling, there was a terrible cannon barrage, it was very frightening."
Witnesses say they shouted Allahu Akbar or God is great, the cry frequently used by Chechen rebels fighting to break away from Russia.
Russian troops rushed to the scene and fighting continued involving mortars, grenade launchers, and army helicopters. By daybreak, the rebels had withdrawn, leaving several buildings on fire and bodies lying in the streets.
The incursion was one of the largest ever outside of Chechnya and contradicts President Putin's assurances the war in southern Russia is all but over. Mr. Putin's senior adviser on Chechnya, Aslambek Aslakhanov, said the attack was timed to coincide with the anniversary of Nazi Germany's attack on Russia in 1941, now known as the Day of Remembrance.
In early May, Chechnya's president and other top officials were killed in a bomb blast on another key holiday marking the Nazi defeat in World War II.
Despite the attack, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov insisted that federal forces are in full control and that the battle against the rebels will go on.
Mr. Ivanov said that "Russia has its military regiment along with forces of the Russian Interior Affairs Ministry in Ingushetia." He added that "Everyone knows there are bandits there, but Russia has enough forces deployed in the region to defeat the guerrillas."
Thousands of Chechen refugees have fled into Ingushetia to escape war and continuing volatility in their homeland. Many were forced to return when their camps were shut down by the Russian government in order to demonstrate that life in Chechnya has returned to normal.