Russia rethinking tactics to fight rebels in Dagestan

Military has trouble reclaiming villages

August 20, 1999|By BOSTON GLOBE

MOSCOW -- Russia acknowledged yesterday that its campaign to suppress an Islamic rebellion in Dagestan was not working, a stark reversal of almost daily assurances that it would crush the rebels within a week.

As federal troops reported their heaviest losses in the 13-day conflict, a senior Russian commander said Moscow was rethinking the tactics it was using to dislodge armed militants who have declared an independent Islamic state in the rugged Caucasus region.

It was the clearest sign that the military has begun to accept what independent observers have been saying: Russia faces a long, drawn-out struggle against the 2,000 followers of renegade Chechen commander Shamil Basayev.

Basayev wants to unite Dagestan and Chechnya. But Dagestani leaders say that despite their historic ties to the Chechens, their people have no interest in seceding from Russia.

"The use of artillery and air strikes and other types of weapons which are in place is not effective enough," said Col. Gen. Igor Zubov, the Russian deputy interior minister who returned from the fighting yesterday.

He told reporters in Moscow that Basayev's men had fortified positions on the hills around the several villages they control inside Dagestan's border with separatist Chechnya.

Zubov spoke after Russian troops were repulsed in an effort to take one of the villages, Tando, which is strategically located on the rebels' supply line to Chechnya.

Zubov said the mountainous terrain in Dagestan gives the rebels many places to hide from Russian warplanes and gunships during the day. At night, he said, they emerge to launch deadly raids against the Russians. Troops who fought in the 10-year Soviet campaign in Afghanistan and Russia's 1994-1996 conflict with rebels in Chechnya say mountain warfare in Dagestan is much harder.

Zubov's somber assessment contrasted with the assurances of senior commanders and recently appointed Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin, who promised that the rebels would be defeated by the end of next week.

As Moscow's optimism waned, Dagestani leaders, who have chided the federal commanders for moving too slowly, expressed their irritation.

"The generals were in an excessively good mood when they made their declarations about how Dagestani territory would be cleared of militants in a week," observed Mukhu Aliyev, the speaker of the regional parliament.

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