Conflict in Dagestan sets a violent stage in Caucasus

Terrorists, gangs, oil from Caspian bode ill for Russian government

August 29, 1999|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- When Russia's prime minister made a surprise visit to Dagestan Friday he handed out medals all around to the fighters who had driven a band of Islamic rebels out of the mountains and back into Chechnya, but no one is pretending that the latest war in the Caucasus is over.

The rebel leader, Shamil Basaev, had ordered his men to pull back from the villages they had seized in western Dagestan after they took a pounding from Russian planes and artillery, but he vowed last week to take the fight to Russia in other ways and other places. And it appears he has begun to do so.

As it enters this next stage, Russia's latest war in the Caucasus promises to be nasty and violent. Basaev, one of the heroes of Chechnya's war for independence three years ago, may be something of a wild man, the Russians argue, but he has powerful forces behind him.

And this fight concerns more than Dagestan: It has to do with Caspian Sea oil, with comfortably entrenched criminal gangs in Moscow, and with Russia's electoral politics. It has to do with divisions in Russia's Muslim community -- but more important, the Russians say, it comes down to a direct confrontation with international Islamic terrorist organizations. Russian intelligence officers say that the Chechens have direct links to Osama bin Laden, the millionaire Saudi fugitive who was accused by the United States of directing the bombings of two embassies in Africa a year ago.

Bin Laden, now in Afghanistan, is said to have helped maintain training camps for mujahedeen in Chechnya, and to have provided arms and supplies to Basaev.

"Chechnya itself doesn't produce anything of this kind," said Vladimir Lutsenko, a former KGB officer who now runs a security agency in Moscow. "If they didn't have this support from the outside, how could they exist?"

He said a relative of bin Laden's was believed to have been fighting with Basaev in Dagestan.

Russian officials believe that they are facing a campaign of terror as opposed to the military assault they've just beaten back.

Indeed, even before Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin had showed up Friday in the remains of the mountain village of Botlikh to shake hands with Russian soldiers and Dagestani free-lancers gathered there, gunmen briefly seized a television station in Nazran, a city to the west of Chechnya.

One of the attackers, who was later killed, reportedly told a station employee that they had just come from the fighting in Dagestan, on orders of Basaev's chief lieutenant, a Saudi who goes by the name Khattab.

Later in the day, it was reported that Chechen militia leaders had put a price on Putin's head.

"And this is what you might call a prelude," said Ilyaz Kayaev, deputy chairman of the Dagestan Peace Fund.

Link to bin Laden

Khattab, a veteran of the wars in Afghanistan and Chechnya, is said to be the link between the Chechens and bin Laden, whose goal is the spread of Islamic fundamentalism throughout the Muslim world.

Bin Laden, heir to a construction fortune, cut his teeth among Afghans who fought off the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Through Khattab, the Saudi millionaire reportedly funnels money, supplies and fighters to Chechnya.

Ben Venzke of Pinkerton Global Intelligence in Arlington, Va., an American specialist on bin Laden, said he "would be surprised if there was not" a connection between bin Laden and the Chechen rebels.

"It fits his pattern," he said. "He's out to support these causes, wherever they may be."

A newspaper in the Caucasus called Severny Kavkaz reported that bin Laden had visited Chechnya earlier this summer. There's even been a suggestion that the attack on Dagestan was a result of such a visit.

Basaev does not share bin Laden's religious zeal, according to Lutsenko. "Basaev is not a fanatic about fundamentalism. It's a convenient way to get money from these Arabs."

But he does share his hatred of the Russians. On Chechen television, in an interview broadcast Aug. 17, Basaev declared, "We will besiege all Russians and kill them."

"But Khattab," said Lutsenko, "is like a separate phenomenon. He's an international terrorist."

Lutsenko said Khattab was responsible for a series of bombings last February in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, which led to a severe crackdown by the government there.

Neither Basaev nor Khattab enjoys the open support of the Chechen government, but it was powerless to do anything about their expedition into Dagestan.

Basaev is an adherent of the Wahhabi branch of Islam, the official doctrine of Saudi Arabia but in the minority in the Caucasus. Khattab has a Dagestani wife, and both men apparently expected Wahhabis in Dagestan to flock to their side.

It didn't happen. A Dagestani opposition leader, Nadir Khachilaev, who is hiding in Chechnya, refused their offer of leadership of the rebellion. Residents of the villages captured by the rebels slipped away. Those villages were then obliterated by Russian bombardment in two weeks of fighting; Dagestan now has 12,000 refugees.

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