Police officers, captured by terrorists, are freed by security forces in Russian volatile Caucasus city Nalchik

Security forces on Friday freed an unspecified number of police officers from a police station where they had been caught in a battle with Islamic extremists, while security forces stormed a store held by the last terrorist holdouts in Nalchik, the regional president's press service said.

The ITAR-Tass news agency said three terrorists in a souvenir store near the regional headquarters of the Federal Security Service, which was being stormed, were holding two hostages.

The storming came a day after Islamic militants launched a major attack on police and government buildings in Nalchik, a provincial capital in Russia's volatile Caucasus region, turning the city into a war zone wracked by gunfire and explosions.

Officials said at least 85 people were killed Thursday, including 61 attackers, and that militants were holding hostages at a police station hours after the heavy fighting died down. Chechen terrorists claimed responsibility for the offensive in Nalchik, the capital of the republic of Kabardino-Balkariya, which opened a new front in Russia's decade-old war against Islamic terrorists.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, beleaguered by attacks that have killed hundreds of civilians and underscored his failure to bring the turbulent Caucasus under control, ordered a total blockade of Nalchik to prevent militants from slipping out and ordered security forces to shoot any armed resisters.

ITAR-Tass said that some tettorists tried to escape the city in a van but crashed into a tree and were surrounded and killed. It was unclear how many militants were in the vehicle.

At a building housing the souvenir shop, wounded militants released three hostages in exchange for water, but one of those freed said the attackers were still holding three captives. The top regional official said militants held five hostages at the police precinct building, and shots rang out late into the night while armored personnel carriers drew close to the station.

At an emergency meeting early Friday, hours before dawn, Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev ordered police to step up efforts to neutralize the two remaining pockets of resistance, saying the five militants in the police station had been urged to surrender, Russian news agencies reported.

"They have been given some time to think, but it's understood that nobody is going to wait endlessly for their decision," ITAR-Tass and Interfax quoted Nurgaliyev as saying.

He said the militants at the souvenir shop had refused to make contact with authorities and that "measures to liquidate them are being taken," ITAR-Tass reported.

Nurgaliyev said 2,000 police troops had been brought into the city and that helicopters patrolled overhead.

After the heavy fighting that began Thursday morning and lasted some six hours eased, Deputy Interior Minister Andrei Novikov said 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.


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