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Dagestan Incursions - August-September 1999

In August and September of 1999, Islamic extremists based in Chechnya, independent of the government of Chechnya, twice staged armed incursions into the neighboring Russian Federation Republic of Dagestan. Hundreds of militants invaded, with the intent of creating an independent Islamic state in Dagestan. There were accusations that terrorist Osama Bin Laden had been supplying arms to the rebels and might move to Dagestan himself.

Rebel leader Shamil Basayev was a prominent field commander during Russia's 1994-1996 civil war with Chechnya that ended in de-facto independence for the breakaway region. Among his countrymen, Basayev is a great hero --- a composite of Robin Hood and George Washington. Basayev's name became well known during June 1995 when he and a handful of Chechen combatants held some 1,500 Russian civilians hostage inside the Budennovsk city hospital. On more than one occasion, when Russian forces were on the threshold of destroying the remnants of Chechen resistance, Basayev managed to strengthen Chechen resolve and strike the Russians where it hurt.

Shamil Basayev was named as Acting Chechen Prime Minister in November 1997. Basayev's appointment was symbolic because it took place on the eve of the celebrations of the 200th anniversary of his renowned namesake -- the third imam of Dagestan and Chechnya, leader of the last century's national movement, respected by many people in the Caucasus as the greatest of heroes. Basayev subsequently reduced the government's administrative departments and abolished several ministries. However, the collection of taxes and the Chechen National Bank's reserves shrunk, and theft of petroleum products increased seriously. By early 1998 Basayev emerged as the main political opponent of the Chechen president, who in his opinion was "pushing the republic back to the Russian Federation." On 31 March 1998 Basayev called for the termination of talks with Russia. "Almost no agreement signed between Grozny and Moscow has been fulfilled. The Russian side is not consistent in fulfilling its obligations in the framework of these agreements," he said. On 07 July 1998 Shamil Basayev sent a letter of resignation to Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov. And on 19 July 1998 Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov appointed Basayev deputy commander of the republic's armed forces. Basayev heads the Islamic Majlis of Chechnya and Dagestan, and forces loyal to Basayev and Khattab are estimated at 5-7,000 strong, including mercenaries from Yugoslavia, Turkey and Afghanistan. According to Russian Deputy Interior Minister Igor Zubov, Osama bin Laden contributed 30 million dollars to the Chechen guerrilla leader to help finance an Islamic insurgency in southern Russia.

An aggressive Sudanese version of Wahabism started spreading In the north Caucasus in the late 1980s. Prior to the war in Chechnya, it was especially strong in Dagestan and later permeated into Chechen official armed forces and security bodies as well as opposition forces. Wahabism also gained a foothold in north Azerbaijan, which is populated by Lezgins, who are a north Caucasus people. Wahabism became popular, especially among young people, who are ready to serve Islam with the zeal of new converts. Most alarmingly, field commanders of the Chechen opposition, accompanied by small armed groups, frequent the Pankisi Gorge, a mountainous region in North Georgia, where they undergo military training. Their militancy was directed against the Chechen authorities, but there was press speculation on their plans for Georgia. Leaders of the extremist Wahabi sect threatened to carry out terrorist acts in an effort to make Dagestan an independent Islamic state.

The Wahhabi sect has experienced sharp growth in Dagestan, which is among the poorest regions in Russia. According to some estimates, 80-thousand Dagestanis, or four-percent of the total population, are members of the puritanical Islamic sect. The reason the Dagestani uprising failed to engender widespread support, while the one in Chechnya succeeded, is that the ethnic makeups of the neighboring regions are fundamentally different. While both populations are overwhelmingly Muslim, Chechnya is a homogeneous republic. Dagestan is a mix of more than 30-different ethnic communities that often disagree among themselves.

On 07 August 1999 group of between 200 and 500 armed men crossed the border into Dagestan early in the day and took up positions around three mountain villages. The Muslim insurgents quickly captured several villages in the remote mountains of the southern Dagestan region. On 10 August a council of Islamic leaders in the region met and declared Dagestan's independence. The declaration called for Muslims from Dagestan and Chechnya to fight until all infidels were ousted from Muslim territory. Days after he was appointed, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin predicted the insurgents would be driven out of Dagestan in two weeks. Russian troops relied mainly on air power and heavy artillery against suspected insurgent positions in the sparsely populated Dagestani mountains. Despite a relentless bombardment by Russian aircraft and heavy artillery, the rebels initially yielded little ground.

On 25 August Russian troops said they had regained control of all mountain villages seized by Islamic separatists in the southern Dagestan region. After two-and-one-half weeks of steady air and artillery strikes, Russian military officials said all Muslim rebels had been cleared from the mountains of Dagestan, along the border with breakaway Chechnya. A Defense Ministry spokesman said two of six villages occupied by the insurgents were reduced to rubble by the air strikes. Each side reported losing between 40 and 50 men in the two-week conflict, and estimated enemy casualties at many times higher.

On 26 August Russian air strikes targeted two Chechen villages where against Muslim insurgents who were retreating from neighboring Dagestan were being sheltered.

In the Dagestani village of Karamakhi, leaders renounced Russian rule and proclaimed Islamic law in 1998. Karamakhi was considered the heart of Islamic fundamentalism in Dagestan. Since the imposition of Sharia law, residents were forbidden to listen to music or take photographs, and women were required to wear Islamic dress covering their face, arms, and legs.

Russian and Dagestani authorities chose to ignore the imposition of Muslim Sharia law in Karamakhi. But after crushing the Chechen-led insurgency in Dagestan's western mountains in August 1999, federal troops shifted their attention to other areas believed to be sheltering rebels. Karamakhi, known as a stronghold of the fundamentalist Wahhabi sect of Islam, was the first target. Karamakhi, about 40 kilometers south of the regional capital, Makhachkala, has a population of about 10-thousand people, but most fled when federal troops arrived last week and announced they were going to retake the village by force.

Russia's Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, said the insurgents were supported by international mercenaries. Russian forces were ordered to rid Dagestan of the militants quickly, but many troops complained they lack the arms and manpower to do so. On 04 September 1999 Russia's Defense Ministry assumed full control from the Interior Ministry over military operations against Islamic militants in Dagestan. Lieutenant-General Gennady Troshev was appointed as commander of the unified forces.

On 05 September 1999 hundreds of gunmen (some estimates up to two-thousand) crossed into Dagestan from Chechnya and began fighting for control over four villages in the Novolaksky district. Fighting continued in the Karamakhi area of Dagestan. Russian troops stepped up air attacks against Islamic fundamentalists in existing positions trying to retain control over several villages. As of 08 September Russia's Interior Ministry reported ground combat in and around 11 villages in the Novolak region, about 50 kilometers northwest of the Dagestani capital, Makhachkala. A small but well-equipped band of rebels remained firmly entrenched despite air strikes, artillery shelling and ground attacks by a federal force many times its size.

By mid-September 1999 the militants were routed from several villages they had seized. Russian military officials established control over two villages, Chabanmakhi and Karamakhi, held by Islamic militants in Dagestan. Basaev said his militants had withdrawn from positions in the western Novolakskoye area.



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