Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Dagestan Assault Fails to Deliver

Massive military operation in the mountains ends with no proof of any militants killed or captured.
By Musa Musayev
A ferocious bombardment of suspected militants in Dagestan which yielded few results has revealed the weak grip of security agencies in the mountains of the North Caucasus.

For three days last week, a handful of alleged Islamic militants holed up in the mountains of Dagestan were pounded by Russian artillery and helicopters. Although the armed group was surrounded by soldiers, police and special forces, when the operation ended, no trace of any dead rebels was found. Russian forces suffered a number of casualties.

The fighting broke out on January 3, after a three-member police patrol was shot at near the villages of Gimry and Shamilkala in the mountains of central Dagestan. A local police source told IWPR that one policeman escaped, but the other two were later found dead.

The source, who requested anonymity, told IWPR that the three days of fighting that followed involved some 1,500 soldiers from the Russian army and from interior ministry special units, backed by heavy artillery and combat aircraft.

Officials said all these forces were deployed against a small group of eight militants. According to the Islamist website Kavkaz Center, at least 30 fighters were involved.

The Dagestani interior ministry reported five militants dead, but their bodies have not been found.

The ministry said the group included suspects in a recent assassination attempt on the deputy interior minister that left his son dead. It also said a wanted man named Omar Sheikhullayev, one of the leaders of a group called Shariat accused of killing dozens of police officers, was among the fighters.

The militants were reported to be tightly encircled in an area called the Black Forest near the village of Shamilkala, and then pounded with heavy artillery, mortars and bombs. Yet somehow they still managed to escape. The Russians lost one soldier dead and ten wounded.

When the fighting was over, soldiers found a large dugout which survived the bombardment, as well as components for explosive devices and 40 books in Arabic. One theory is that the dugout - which police blew up - was a training centre for local youth recruits.

A Dagestani policeman who took part in the operation told IWPR, “Our unit was deployed on the mountainside, but we were never told to attack. There were too many soldiers on our side, so the risk was high of inviting some ‘friendly fire’. What’s more, the information about the militants’ whereabouts did not make sense.”

The man complained that he and his colleagues never get paid any extra for taking part in such forays, and have to buy food with their own money.

Amir, a doctor at Untsukul’s district hospital, told IWPR the operation enjoyed little support among local people.

“The locals feel sorry that continuing fighting is claiming young lives in this undeclared war,” he told IWPR by telephone. “They are angry with the soldiers, whose raids cause lots of inconvenience and tension. The locals did not get prior warning, otherwise they could have left their houses. Soldiers and police are rude and distrustful of the locals. When they brought wounded soldiers in to the hospital, we were not even told their names. This whole raid looked like a theatrical performance.”

The tunnel in Gimry has now been reopened to traffic, but police are checking drivers’ papers and searching the area. The press office of the Dagestani interior ministry said the operation was still in progress, refusing to comment further.

Gimry is a place that evokes strong historical associations as the birthplace of Shamil, the Imam of Dagestan and Chechnya who led the mountain peoples of the eastern North Caucasus in a 40-year war against the Russian empire in the 19th century.

The village lies on the sunny side of a rocky ridge, and although it is only 50 kilometres west of the Dagestani capital Makhachkala, it was only linked directly to the capital by road in the late Eighties, when a 4.5 km tunnel was drilled through the mountain to cut the journey from five hours to one.

Gimry, populated by Avars, the largest of Dagestan’s ethnic groups, has been tense for some time. In November, with rumours of a military operation in the area, alarmed locals told the government they would not resist any attempt to arrest suspected militants and promised to hand over any villagers believed to hold extremist views. In December, one local resident was killed in a shootout after he resisted arrest.

Another source of controversy is the Irganai hydroelectric power station, which is now close to completion two decades after it was conceived. When the dam goes into operation, large areas will be left under water.

The population of the five villages due to be flooded are waiting for the government to offer them alternative housing, and the question of compensation has not been resolved. Concern about the issue led villagers to stage a protest on January 3, blocking the road to the dam construction site. But local people say this was unconnected with the military operation.

Ibrahim Magomedov, deputy chair of the non-government Congress of the Peoples of Dagestan, argues that poverty is the prime cause of violence in the republic.

“Ninety per cent of young people in Dagestan have nothing to do. Vocational schools have long since closed due to understaffing. No one trains lathe operators, metalworkers or tractor drivers any more, and few can afford to go to college,” he said. “When they see nothing good coming from the government, many choose the path of banditry, paid for by foreign sponsors of terrorism.”

Magomedov said the lack of vocal public outrage at the violence is indicative of the mood in Dagestan. “In other countries terrorist attacks might cause massive public protests, but here there is complete indifference,” he said. “There were no informal protests even during the Beslan school siege or after the explosions in [the Dagestan towns of] Buinaksk and Kaspiisk.

“All this goes to show that the people do not support the government. What kind of ‘special operation’ is it where whole regiments with heavy artillery and airplanes fight against eight people? They level entire houses with tanks to capture five militants, leaving residents out in the cold with no help from the government.”

Musa Musayev is an independent journalist in Makhachkala.