Russian officials admit trouble regaining control in Dagestan

Guerrilla rebellion in southern republic echoes war in Chechnya

August 13, 1999|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

MOSCOW -- Amid signs that fighting in the Russian republic of Dagestan has spread into neighboring Chechnya, military officials admitted for the first time yesterday that they faced serious problems in their bid to control a guerrilla rebellion in the troubled southern republic.

Russian planes continued rocket and bomb attacks in the area of seven Dagestani villages seized by Islamic militants who invaded from nearby Chechnya last weekend.

The Russian claims in recent days that soldiers of the Interior and Defense ministries and Dagestani police had forced the rebels to retreat appeared increasingly questionable, as a senior official in the regional government conceded that the Russian efforts were disorganized.

Several Chechen villages near the border with Dagestan were hit yesterday by Russian bombs and rockets, according to officials in Chechnya.

The separatist republic of Chechnya remains part of Russia but has slipped out of Moscow's control since the 1994-1996 Chechen war for independence.

Russia's most dangerous security crisis since the Chechen war has come at a bad time for the Kremlin, with President Boris N. Yeltsin's regime desperate to stay in power beyond elections scheduled to be held next July.

The Dagestan conflict has a frightening resonance for Russians, the more so because the Islamic rebels are led by Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev, who is perceived in Russia as a fanatical and threatening enemy. Basayev was one of the more ruthless and formidable rebel commanders during the Chechen war.

Russia's acting deputy interior minister, Lt. Gen. Igor N. Zubov, said yesterday that the situation remained grave, with Russian forces facing challenges in operating against the guerrillas in mountainous terrain.

"We should be clearly aware that it is difficult to achieve an outright victory over guerrilla units," Zubov said.

Mukhu G. Aliyev, chairman of the People's Assembly of Dagestan, hinted that unless federal efforts became better organized, Russia risks losing part of Dagestani territory to the rebels.

"We have sufficient forces. What we need is better organization," he said. "We need better control. We must act more purposely. If we do this, there will be no changes to the map."

Yeltsin met with security officials yesterday to discuss the Dagestan emergency. He said the Russians will reassert control over Dagestan "gradually, without haste, just as it was planned."

"Along with Chechnya, this is the most difficult sector," he said.

But on the sixth day of conflict, some military analysts noted disturbing echoes of the war in Chechnya, where Russia faced a humiliating defeat and lost control of the region when its troops were forced to withdraw.

Pavel Y. Felgenhauer, military analyst with Sevodnya newspaper, said a lack of coordination for Russian operations could presage another military disaster for Moscow in the Caucasus.

"If today [rebel commander] Basayev seriously presses forward in Dagestan, the Russian military may be in for another disaster," he wrote in the Moscow Times, an English-language daily.

Russia has faced resistance and sometimes open rebellion in the Caucasus since it seized the region more than two centuries ago. The Russian areas of the Caucasus are predominantly Muslim, and religion has often been the vehicle for rebellion.

Russian officials sought yesterday to give reassurances that the crisis will not turn into a second Chechen war. Unlike in Chechnya, where separatist fighters and the population stood together, Russian officials say there is considerable opposition in Dagestan to the Islamic rebels.

"We have the support of the leadership and people of Dagestan," Zubov said.

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