Russia arms volunteers for fighting in Dagestan

Local retired soldiers are sent to battle rebel incursion

August 12, 1999|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

MOSCOW -- Russia began arming local volunteers in Dagestan yesterday, handing out firearms to hundreds of retired soldiers in a desperate effort to cut off a rebel incursion into the southern republic before it becomes a guerrilla war.

In the central square of Dagestan's capital, Makhachkala, about 300 irregulars -- wearing civilian clothes or pieces of uniforms -- shouldered their weapons and boarded buses for the combat zone along the region's border with the rebel republic of Chechnya.

Russia, which effectively lost its last war to Chechen guerrillas, seems to be trying to fight them this time in part by forming its own quasi-guerrilla army in a region already full of gunmen and all types of weaponry.

"Thank you, brothers, sons, for defending us and our children, our villages," a woman displaced by the fighting told the departing men in TV footage seen in Moscow. "May not a single hair fall from your heads. Allah willing, you will all return safe and sound."

Russian officials continued to assert that they were gaining ground against the rebels, whose numbers they estimated yesterday at 1,500.

"The situation remains complicated," said Russian Defense Minister Igor D. Sergeyev. "But there are a few indicators of improvement."

Official reassurances notwithstanding, Russia appears to have made little headway in suppressing the 5-day-old rebellion.

In TV footage broadcast yesterday, the most powerful warlord to emerge during the Chechen war, Shamil Basayev, acknowledged that he is the one leading the fighters who crossed into Dagestan from Chechnya on Saturday.

"There is no force on Earth capable of stopping the Muslim fighters other than the Almighty, who guides them in this sacred war," Basayev said. "During the past 24 hours alone, control has been established over three Dagestani villages, bringing the total number of communities under our control to 14."

Basayev also claimed to have shot down one Russian aircraft and destroyed four helicopters and nine armored vehicles.

His assertions contradict the official Russian version: that the rebels hold only about a half-dozen villages and that Russian troops have succeeded in pushing them back from some positions. In terms of equipment, the Russians have admitted only that two helicopters were damaged on the ground and that a third made a forced landing after coming under rebel fire.

Vladimir Kolesnikov, Russia's first deputy interior minister, said that 10 Russian service personnel had been killed and 27 wounded in the fighting. He estimated that dozens of insurgents had been killed.

It is practically impossible to verify either version of events.

There are few journalists in Dagestan because a wave of kidnappings -- sponsored by ransom-seeking Chechen warlords -- has made travel to the region perilous for foreigners and many Russians.

The crisis is a dangerous challenge for Russia's new acting prime minister, Vladimir V. Putin, who has vowed to end it within two weeks. He called an urgent session yesterday of the country's top security officers, who decided against imposing a state of emergency in Dagestan.

Putin, who was appointed Monday, also said that there would be no need to introduce a state of emergency.

Members of parliament's upper house, however, criticized Putin for not doing enough to drive out the insurgents.

Basayev was one of Chechnya's central commanders during its two-year war for independence from Russia. The war ended without a political settlement, and the republic remains out of Moscow's control.

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