Los Angeles Times
February 26, 2005
MAKHACHKALA, Russia — It was a little after 6 a.m. when the "bandits," as they are officially known, burst into the house with police hot on their heels.
Amid shouts, screams and the occasional burst of small-arms fire, 16 sleepy families in three adjoining houses tumbled into their bathrobes and slippers and out into the snow. The bandits holed up in the cluttered apartments. Police laid siege outside.
By the time it was over 16 hours later, the row of houses was little more than a pile of rubble, still licked by fire from flamethrowers and rocket-propelled grenades. The mangled and charred bodies of five bandits and one police officer lay among the ruins. Shortly after 10 p.m., a 44-ton T-72 battle tank rumbled over the wreckage and delivered the coup de grace, crushing any trace of life and the families' remaining possessions.
Here in Dagestan, a southern Russian region wedged between the troubled republic of Chechnya and the Caspian Sea, they call what happened Jan. 15 near the end of quiet Magistralnaya Street the One-Day War. The name is misleading in one respect, many agree: It was but one day of many.
The Chechen conflict has seeped beyond its borders into the northern Caucasus region, and Dagestan is one of the new fronts. The bandits, as the Russian authorities call them, are Muslim insurgents who have crossed over from Chechnya or launched battles on their home turf. The police, like those in many areas of Russia now, wear full camouflage and arrive at their house calls in armored vehicles equipped with battle gear.
Eleven Dagestani police officers have been killed since Jan. 1. Last year, 37 policemen died, including the chief of the Russian Federal Security Service's Dagestan bureau and the Interior Ministry's operations chief. The minister of information and national policy was assassinated in August 2003.
The region's worst outbreak of violence was September's seizure by militants from throughout the region of an entire school in the North Ossetian town of Beslan. The assault led to the deaths of 331 hostages. Battles between Russian forces and insurgents also have occurred in Ingushetia and Kabardino-Balkaria republics, most recently on Sunday, when 100 police in armored personnel carriers brought a fiery end to a three-day siege at an apartment building in the town of Nalchik, killing up to three militants inside and arresting five in sweeps throughout the city.
A separate conflict broke out in Karachayevo-Cherkessia, leading the Kremlin to abruptly replace the local government this month.
Chechen rebel leader Shamil Basayev has long declared his intention to ignite war in the northern Caucasus and establish an Islamic state across the steep mountains and verdant plains that stretch between the Black and Caspian seas.
Increasingly, his army appears to be made up not only of Chechens, but recruits from the republics surrounding it — along with fighters from other Muslim lands. Few of these places are well-known. But if the recent incidents are pinpointed on a map, they trace a line of instability across the entire north Caucasus region — in some ways, Russia's nightmare scenario.
"It is becoming clearer and clearer that the Chechnya conflict is no longer an isolated one, confined to the borders of Chechnya, and it could even be said that the conflict has already lost its original ethnic and geographical localization," said Nikolai Silayev, a Caucasus analyst with the Moscow State Institute for International Relations. "The conflict is metastasizing."
Police in Dagestan, the mountainous republic that shares a 335-mile border with Chechnya, are mindful that they are a crucial line of defense. Russia's southern perimeter, the mutinous edge of the empire through much of modern history, is deeply vulnerable.
"We're walking on the edge of a razor here," Col. Abdul Musayev, a spokesman for the Russian Ministry of Interior police forces in Dagestan, confided recently. "We are the southern foundation, we are the bottom of Russia. If the disintegration of Russia happens, it will start in Dagestan."
Yet the kind of large-scale, military-style response displayed in Makhachkala has repercussions of its own. Critics of the Kremlin's policy in the Caucasus say Russia's focus on shootouts and abducting suspected collaborators, as well as the ongoing misery of civilians across the region, ensures the continual creation of new militants.
In Makhachkala, an estimated 60 residents whose homes were destroyed spent three weeks in a seedy downtown hotel with no heat, no food deliveries and no change of clothes. Only after they protested in the streets this month did officials repair the heat and begin delivering small aid packages.
"There is literally nothing left of our house. No walls, nothing. As of today, we have nothing," said Tigran Magomedov, 33. "We were put up in these absolutely cold rooms. People waited and waited, and finally, they ran out of patience."
His sister, Berliant Magomedova, 35, said citizens did not support the insurgents but were fed up with the police.
"Who can say the situation is getting better?" she asked. "The cops get killed by the dozen on a regular basis. If they had been doing their jobs, they wouldn't have allowed those terrorists to enter our house."
Jasmina Dzamalova's 6-year-old daughter was inadvertently left inside the building with the militants until her husband went back in during the standoff and won the girl's release.
"It is a war going on, I can tell you that," the 28-year-old literature teacher said. "It is dangerous to live here. We're afraid all the time. You send your kids to school, and you wonder, are they going to come back? You go to the market, and you're afraid, because you don't know which market they're going to use as a target next.
"God forbid," she added, "that any mother should have to go through what I went through that day."
But it was just one of many violent confrontations in the region. On the same day as the siege on Magistralnaya Street, several special forces officers were dispatched to a house in a suburban town just outside of Makhachkala. But before they could burst through the front door, the suspected militant, 51-year-old Magomedzagir Akaev, opened fire.
The commander of the unit and two officers died along with Akaev.
Twelve days later, there was a six-hour battle between police and militants in Nalchik. It left seven insurgents dead and nearly 20 apartments destroyed or damaged. Authorities quickly brought in repair crews, getting most families back into their homes within three weeks.
Then, back in Dagestan on Feb. 2, the republic's deputy interior minister and three of his bodyguards were killed on the main street of Makhachkala by unknown gunmen who blocked the path of their car and opened fire.
On the same day, the administrator of Dagestan's Khasav-Yurt district was saved from a roadside bomb by the armor plating in his Mercedes limo.
Chechen officials are as capable of spreading mayhem as the insurgents. This was illustrated Jan. 10, when police in Dagestan stopped the car of a Chechen woman, Zulai Kadyrova, and two of her bodyguards. The car and its occupants had no proper documents, police said, but it turned out that Kadyrova was the sister of Chechnya's deputy prime minister and presidential security force leader, Ramzan Kadyrov.
Kadyrov drove to her rescue with 150 men, about eight of whom forced their way into the police station. There, they aimed their guns at several officers, shoving them and punching them in the stomachs with their rifle butts, before departing with Kadyrova. Dagestan prosecutors have opened a criminal investigation into the case.
Dagestan's interior minister, Adilgerey Magomedtagirov, has survived two assassination attempts and on Dec. 30 buried one of his senior lieutenants, Col. Gadzhiramazan Ramazanov, chief of the operational department.
Yet he enthusiastically endorses Moscow's line that the insurgents are mere bandits who can be rounded up and put out of business with enough good police work. The same official line has held that the number of Chechen insurgents has remained constant at about 1,500 for the last several years, though dozens are reported killed every month.
"It's only a matter of time before they are all apprehended," Magomedtagirov said in an interview. "Of course, as long as these people continue to run into the woods, these conflicts are bound to continue. Because as a rule, they don't surrender. But I can tell you that, sooner or later, we'll get to every single one of them and hold them to account."
Critics doubt it.
"This process of new people running to the mountains is quite explicable. People do this because they do not know how to protect themselves from the arbitrary rule of the current authorities," said Tatyana Kasatkina, executive director of Memorial, a human rights center in Moscow.
"People get summarily rounded up in mop-up operations, they are tortured, and very often their dead bodies are discovered, or they simply vanish without a trace," she said. "And no appeals to the prosecutor bodies or other law-enforcement bodies yield any results. It is all too obvious why some people prefer to hide in the mountains and correct the wrong the best way they know how — with weapons in their hands."
The incident on Magistralnaya Street started when police got word that several insurgents were operating a safe house just down the street, purportedly under the direction of the "emir" of the Jennet (Paradise) Islamic cell in Dagestan, Ruslan Makasharipov.
Makasharipov, 33, is a former translator for Basayev and Saudi-born militant Khattab, who operated training camps for extremists in Chechnya before dying of poisoning in 2002 — allegedly after receiving a letter from Russian agents.
Since then, he is believed to have overseen many operations in Dagestan. Authorities say his group has been responsible for most of the major assassinations in the republic since 1999.
Surveillance cameras outside the safe house allowed the inhabitants to flee before police closed in, and in the ensuing chase they ended up barricaded in the complex down the street.
After the shootout, police searched the safe house and found what they believed were signs that the insurgents were planning a "Beslan-type" operation. One of the militants — identified as Makasharipov's cousin — was wearing an explosive belt. Police found hand grenades, hundreds of rounds of ammunition, guns and 330 pounds of explosives in the house and a nearby car.
Authorities first announced that Makasharipov had been killed in the operation. But the only bodies they have been able to identify are of three young Dagestanis. They are analyzing the DNA of the other two bodies, one of which is so maimed that, in Col. Musayev's words, "it fit into a plastic grocery bag."
"Right now, there's exactly the same probability that he's alive as that he's dead," Musayev said.
Last week, militants struck again. On Feb. 13, a highway patrol car was blown up by a roadside bomb in the Dagestani town of Stepnoy, killing one police officer and injuring three. On Wednesday, a car bomb exploded near the regional administration building in the town of Kizlyar, just as three senior government officials were driving by. A woman passing by was killed and six other people were wounded.
"It's premature to talk about victory. But we know the situation in the battlefield like the back of our hand," said Zagir Arukhov, Dagestan's minister of national policy and information. Arukhov, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on the concept of Islamic jihad, or holy war, succeeded the assassinated official.
"Today, when these clashes occur, it is the law-enforcement bodies who are on the front lines," he said. "They are really like a safety net, which the terrorists aspire to remove so they can intimidate the entire society and impregnate it with their teachings.
"We will never allow anything like this to happen," he said.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Ten years after Boris Yeltsin first sent Russian troops into Chechnya to put down an attempt at independence, violence has seeped across a tier of adjoining republics creating a band of instability in the northern Caucasus. Some recent examples of the trouble:
Jan. 15, 2005: Security forces beseige a house in Makhachkala where several gunmen are located. Five of them and a police officer are killed. Officials find guns, grenades and other explosives in a safe house.
Feb. 2, 2005: A deputy interior minister and three of his bodyguards are gunned down in an ambush on the main street of Makhachkala.
Sept. 1, 2004: Hundreds of children and adults are taken hostage at a school in Beslan in an operation believed planned by Chechens. After a three-day ordeal, 331 are left dead.
June 22, 2004: In well-organized night raids, gunmen set up false checkpoints in Nazran and stage attacks across the city, mostly against police and government officials; about 90 people are killed.
Jan. 27, 2005: Police kill seven suspected pro-Chechnyan Islamic insurgents after a two-day siege in the capital city of Nalchik.
Oct. 18, 2004: Deputy prime minister shot and killed as he drives to work in Cherkessk, the republic's capital.
Sources: University of Texas, Times reporting. Graphics reporting by Yakov Ryzhak and Scott Wilson.