MOSCOW — MOSCOW - Thousands of Russian troops scoured the southern republic of Ingushetia yesterday for Chechen rebels suspected of overnight attacks that killed 57 people and burned several Russian government buildings.
Russian President Vladimir V. Putin said those responsible for the attacks, which began late Monday night and lasted into early yesterday morning, should be "found and destroyed."
"Those whom it is possible to take alive we should hand over to the courts," Putin said.
The attacks, the largest rebel operation in the Ingush region since war between separatists and Moscow erupted in Chechnya a decade ago, was another blow to Putin's claim that Russian forces were in control of the separatist region.
Last month, Kremlin-backed Chechen President Akhmad Kadyrov was killed by a bomb in a stadium where he was watching a holiday celebration.
"This shows that things are not getting better there if a well-organized, underground, armed resistance can orchestrate such a massive attack," said Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent defense analyst in Moscow.
The fighting began late Monday night in Nazran, the largest city in the republic of Ingushetia, when as many as 200 fighters armed with grenades and rocket launchers surprised Russian officers in the regional Interior Ministry.
The fighters held the building for several hours, then set it ablaze. They then attacked border guard posts in the villages of Karabulak and Yandare on the Chechen border.
Three of the Ingushetia's high-ranking officials, including Interior Minister Abukar Kostoyev, were killed in the attacks, a government Web site reported. At least 60 were injured.
The dead included 47 law enforcement officers or officials, the Itar-Tass news agency reported, quoting Beslan Khamkoyev, acting Ingush interior minister.
Local Moscow television stations showed gruesome images of the dead and injured lying outside the remains of the smoldering Russian government buildings.
A stream of Russian armored personnel carriers, trucks and troops moved into Nazran through the border village of Chermen in neighboring North Ossetia early yesterday. Russian officials at the Interior Ministry said that by afternoon Russian troops had pushed back the remaining rebels in heavy fighting.
Many of the rebels are believed to have retreated into the region's thick forests.