NALCHIK, Russia - Militants attacked police and government buildings in Russia's volatile Caucasus region Thursday, taking hostages and turning a provincial capital into a war zone wracked by gunfire and explosions that left at least 85 people dead, mostly insurgents.
Chechen rebels claimed responsibility for the offensive in Nalchik, the capital of the mostly Muslim republic of Kabardino-Balkariya, as a new front opened in the Kremlin's decade-old battle against Islamic insurgents.
The rebels' struggle against Russia, originally a separatist movement, increasingly has melded with Islamic extremism in the past decade and fanned out beyond Chechnya's borders to encompass the entire Caucusus region.
The insurgent strategy of simultaneous attacks on facilities in Nalchik, a city of 235,000, was similar to a rebel siege last year in another Caucasus republic, Ingushetia, in what appears to be an attempt to target areas outside Chechnya and keep Moscow off-balance.
Kabardino-Balkariya is the fifth of seven republics in the mountainous region to be hit by the spillover of violence from the struggle in Chechnya. The insurgents are trying to exploit tensions among a variety of ethnic groups in the impoverished region as well as native Muslims and the ethnic Russians, who are Christian.
President Vladimir Putin, beleaguered by attacks that have killed hundreds of civilians and underscored his failure to bring the southern area under control, ordered a total blockade of Nalchik to prevent militants from slipping out. He told security forces to shoot any armed resisters.
Thursday's fighting began about 8:30 a.m. Thursday after police launched an operation to capture about 10 militants in a Nalchik suburb. All 10 suspected militants were killed, Russian Deputy Interior Minister Alexander Chekalin said.
Gunmen staged simultaneous attacks against three police stations, the city's airport and the regional headquarters of the Interior Ministry and Federal Security Service in what appeared what appeared to be an effort to divert police.
The attack at the airport was repelled, the facility was placed under military control and all flights were canceled, news reports said.
The militants also attacked the regional headquarters of the Russian prison system, the Emergency Situation Ministry's press office said. Interfax said a border guards' office also came under attack.
A teacher from School No. 5, who gave only his first name, Spartak, said children had been evacuated from the building, near a police station and an anti-terrorism office at the center of the attacks. Black smoke billowed from the building as panic-stricken parents searched for their children in the school yard.
Cars were overturned or gutted by gunfire, and Russian television footage showed the bloodied bodies of what appeared to be attackers in the streets.
The heavy fighting quieted down after about six hours, though sporadic gunfire continued and officials said militants were holding several hostages at a police station - and released captives said others were being held at a building housing a souvenir shop.
Deputy Interior Minister Andrei Novikov said late Thursday that 61 militants were killed, some from Kabardino-Balkariya and some from other republics in the Russian Caucasus. Russian and regional officials said 12 civilians and 12 police officers were killed.
Russian news agencies, citing figures from Russia's Center for Catastrophic Medicine, reported that 13 people were killed and 116 others were hospitalized, but it was unclear whether those figures referred only to civilians.
Estimates of the number of militants involved ranged from 60 to 300, and the Interfax news agency quoted an aide to the president of Kabardino-Balkariya as saying late Thursday that 17 had been detained.
The region has suffered a growing wave of violence as Islamic extremism is spreading despite the government's harsh anti-terrorist methods, from targeted killings of rebel leaders such as Aslan Maskhadov to paying rewards for information to the demolition of houses where suspected rebels have found refuge.
Police and security forces have fought pitched battles with militants across the region, and the rebels have employed terrorist methods including suicide bombings and the seizure of more than 1,000 hostages last year in a school in the town of Beslan, 60 miles southeast of Nalchik.
The Kavkaz-Center Web site, seen as a voice for rebels loyal to Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev, said it had received a short message claiming responsibility for Thursday's attack on behalf of the Caucasus Front. It said the group is part of the Chechen rebel armed forces and includes Yarmuk, an alleged militant Islamic group based in Kabardino-Balkariya.
Deputy Prosecutor General Vladimir Kolesnikov said suspects detained during Thursday's fighting said the offensive was carried out under orders from two wanted militants - including an active supporter of Basayev.
But armed forces chief of staff Gen. Yuri Baluyevsky said he had no evidence Basayev was involved in the attack. Russian officials also said no evidence supported speculation Basayev had been killed.
As darkness fell, Chekalin said militants holed up in two offices at a police station were holding hostages and battling security forces. Regional President Arsen Kanokov said five or six militants held five hostages at the police station, Interfax reported. Shots rang out late into the night while armored personnel carriers drew close to the station.
At a building housing a souvenir shop, wounded militants released three hostages in exchange for water, but one of those freed said the attackers were still holding three captives.