Islamic rebels claim success in Dagestan conflict

Russians say guerrillas occupy four villages

August 16, 1999|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

MOSCOW -- Islamic rebels fighting in southern Russia claimed yesterday to have nearly completed the first stage of their campaign to split a new swath of territory from Moscow's control and announced that they were almost ready to launch a second phase.

The assertions of the rebels, who crossed into the republic of Dagestan from the separatist republic of Chechnya just over a week ago, stood in stark contrast to those of the Russian military, which claimed to be only days away from regaining authority over Dagestan.

The Russians continued to pound guerrilla positions with bombs and missiles, and rebels fought hand to hand with federal forces in one battle early yesterday, according to the rebels.

Magomed Tagayev, a spokesman for the rebels, claimed that they held the areas they seized when they pushed into Dagestan, while Russian officials said the guerrillas retained control of four villages.

Tagayev said the rebel leader, Shamil Basayev, had called a meeting of his military council, comprising rebel commanders, for today to discuss the second phase of their operation, code-named Imam Gamzat-Bek.

Russia's acting prime minister, Vladimir V. Putin, conceded yesterday that even if Russia defeats the rebels, Dagestan will still be a sore spot.

"The thing is that this abscess, this boil, connected with the uncertainty in relations with the Chechen republic, will remain after the main terrorist groups are destroyed or pushed out of Dagestani territory," Putin said in an interview on RTR television.

The northern Caucasus is Russia's most unstable and violent region. Dagestan, Russia's poorest republic, has high unemployment and more than 30 ethnic groups. Dagestani police and volunteers are fighting alongside Russian forces to oust the rebels.

Chechnya, meanwhile, is a crime-ridden republic over which Moscow lost control after the Chechens declared independence in 1991 and defeated Russia in a 1994-96 war.

Russian military officials claimed yesterday to have beaten back a group of rebel reinforcements that arrived in Dagestan from Chechnya overnight and to have taken a strategic peak that has changed hands several times in the fighting. They also claimed to have killed more than 80 fighters yesterday -- a claim denied by the rebels.

Igor Senokosenko, a Dagestan Interior Ministry spokesman, said federal forces were moving slowly to avoid unnecessary casualties.

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