Troops Hunt Rebels in Dagestan Mountains
Security forces seal off villages as part of a massive sweep to find Islamic militants.
By Revaz Alikhanov and Tamara Magomedova in Makhachkala (CRS No. 426 09-Jan-08)
Untsukul in the western mountains of Dagestan, a Caucasian republic in Russia’s south, is a place redolent with history. The district contains the village of Gimri, birthplace of Imam Shamil, the famous warrior leader who led his fellow-Muslims in a prolonged war against the Russians in the 19th century.
Now Gimri is again full of armed men, this time from the Dagestani interior ministry and its Russian federal counterpart.
For the last month, they have been engaged in a counter-terrorism operation in the Untsukul district, triggered by the murder on December 10 of Gazimagomed Magomedov, a member of Dagestan’s parliament.
Magomedov, 36, went out into the yard of his house in the village of Vremenny, not far from Gimri, to meet a visitor whose identity is not known. After hearing shots, relatives and ran out to find him dead, with three bullet wounds in the chest and one to the head.
The killing shocked Dagestan and prompted the republic’s counter-terrorism committee to order a large-scale sweep to find Magomedov’s killers. Launched on December 16, the operation rapidly saw around large numbers of security forces combing Gimri and the forests around it.
Around 3,500 personnel equipped with armoured vehicles have been deployed, and no one is being allowed to enter a security zone which begins several dozens of kilometres from Gimri itself. Local residents had to obtain special passes to be allowed to leave.
The designation of an entire population centre and its environs as a sealed-off “special operation” zone is unprecedented in Russia.
A curfew from ten in the evening until six in the morning was declared in Gimri on December 19, and locals were told that anyone who broke it was liable to be fired on without warning.
The same day, a policeman was killed and another wounded in a shootout. An interior ministry source told IWPR that they ran into a group of armed men who opened fire on them. Two members of this group were killed when the police fired back, and security forces then pursued the rest as they fled into the forests around Gimri. Three more policemen were wounded during the pursuit.
At least two more servicemen were injured in firefights later in December.
Schools and kindergartens are not operating as parents have kept their children at home, and there are reports that food is in short supply.
An IWPR contributor tried to get inside the security zone but was stopped at a checkpoint. Officers say no reporters are to be allowed in, on the instructions of Russia’s National Counter-Terrorism Committee.
However, some reports are getting out as local people ring up newspapers to let them know what is going on, and tell of the atmosphere of uncertainty and fear.
“Straight after Gazimagomed Magomedov’s murder, rumours began circulating that Gimri was to be sealed off. Later there were even stories that they were about to open up a corridor for civilians [to escape], and then they’d start firing and dropping bombs,” one local man, Magomedrasul Magomedov, told IWPR by phone.
Another Gimri resident, Aminat, told the Svobodnaya Respublika newspaper that the security forces were conducting searches.
“Literally every day, armed men in camouflage conduct sweeps and detain village men to check their identity. Some they let go immediately after their ID has been checked; others get carted off to the police and then taken away from the village. We’re afraid to go out as the soldiers periodically open fire in the village,” she said.
The Dagestani interior ministry said 50 people had been detained as of December 21, but most of them had been released within hours. Local people say many more than that have been detained, and some are being taken to the neighbouring Buinak district for interrogation.
“The soldiers can search any house in the village without a warrant, arrest someone and take them off to the local or even the district police station under the pretext of the investigation,” said one resident who did not want to be named. “It often turns out that a weapon they claim to have found has been planted by the security forces themselves during the search. Everyone knows they are tapping the phones and checking the post.”
There are reports that the operation has also spread to Balakhani, another village in the Untsukul district.
The authorities believe Gimri and other villages in the district have been used as shelter by members of Islamic militant groups.
Dagestan’s deputy interior minister, Magomed Gazimagomedov, says armed groups based in the areas are responsible for a string of attacks, including murders.
“The [militant] fighters are based not only in Gimri but all across Untsukul district,” he said. Recent attacks included the murder of a district police chief and one of his officers, and now the killing of the member of parliament.
“So it was impossible to go on tolerating this situation,” said the deputy minister.
Magomedov pointed the finger of blame at one Ibragim Gajidadayev, a martial arts champion who was formerly a good friend of the dead man. Gajidadayev has been listed as wanted since 2005 for alleged membership of an “illegal armed group”. However, there is no formal evidence that this is the case.
An anonymous source at the interior ministry offered an alternative theory, telling IWPR that the murdered man had himself been part of the Islamic militant movement.
“Magomedov was not killed by accident, but in order to launch a sweep of these wasps’ nests. The murdered man was the leader of the jamaat [Islamic group] for the whole of Untsukul, and the security forces understood that it would be possible to deal with Untsukul as a recruiting ground for militants only after their leader was liquidated,” said the source.
This source said the mountain operation began much earlier than advertised, citing an internal document published by the interior ministry earlier in 2007 which indicated that more than half the people on the official wanted list came from Gimri or Balakhani.
Gimri’s village government chief, Abdulla Magomedov, said in a phone interview that the atmosphere was tense as local administrators tried to negotiate with the security forces.
“Intensive talks are under way with the man in charge of the special operation, Major-General Sergei Chenchik, the deputy head of the Russian interior ministry’s organised crime department,” he said. “The military are demanding that ‘individuals involved in crime’ should be handed over, but they haven’t furnished specific names.”
He added that the security operation might last several months.
Deputy interior minister Gazimagomedov would not set a precise time limit for the sweep, saying, “It’s impossible to say we’ll conclude the operation today or tomorrow. It will go on until such time as the entire [militant] underground is laid bare.”
Dagistan’s president, Mukhu Aliev, told a press conference that the security operation was being conducted over difficult mountainous and forested terrain, but added, “The names and addresses of each of the fighters is known, and it’s just a matter of time.”
The president asserted that the local population was increasingly trying to help the security forces, rather than just waiting for them to go away, as was the case in previous operations.
However, Magomed Isaev, a political scientist in Dagestan, told IWPR he fears the police action may have exactly the opposite effect.
“The security forces’ actions may – and probably will – make an already difficult situation in the district even worse, by antagonising the people of Gimri, even those who have been supporting the republic’s authorities,” he said.
Revaz Alikhanov is a correspondent for the Novoye Delo newspaper. Tamara Magomedova is an independent journalist in Dagestan.