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25 Sep, 2009 05:52

Dagestan: ten years since bloody assault

It has been ten years since Chechen terrorists invaded another Russian republic of Dagestan, hoping to win the support of the population in a bid to establish a joint Islamic state. Instead they faced harsh resistance.

The Islamist militia, headed by Chechen warlords Shamil Basaev and Ibn al-Khattab came into Dagestan through a rough track in the mountains on August 7, 1999.

They seized four villages without firing a single shot and stopped close to the district town of Botlikh. Waking up to see the armed men on the streets, locals were unsure how to react.

On August 10, the extremists announced the birth of the "independent Islamic State of Dagestan" and declared war on "the traitorous Dagestani government" and "Russia's occupation units."

However, Basaev and Khattab were not welcomed on the territory of Dagestan as liberators, as they had anticipated. Locals perceived them as unwanted religious fanatics and formed citizen militias.

The bulk of resistance fell to the Dagestani police, who continued their fierce battles for over a month after the original insurgence.

The then-newly-appointed Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin arrived to Botlikh on the 27th of August. It had been less than a month since he came to office, but his mood was uncompromising.

“Russian fighter jets have carried out strikes and will carry out strikes in Chechnya exclusively on terrorists’ bases and this will continue no matter where they are. We will follow the terrorists everywhere. So, you must excuse me, but if we catch them in the toilet, we will take them out in the toilet,”  the Prime Minister famously said during a media address on the 24th of September.

Putin’s harsh words directed at the militants marked a breaking point in Russia’s attitude towards them. The message was clear: no more negotiations with terrorists.

A personal toll

One of the main flashpoints was in a Novolak gym, where a now-retired Russian colonel, Sergey Skovorodin, together with his men, was captured by militants.

Sergey says they owe their lives to Muslim Dakhaev, a Dagestani police chief who was also there in charge of a group of men. The militants’ commander suggested they let the Dagestanis go in exchange for the lives of the Russians. But Dakhaev refused.

“Everyone knows about it; everyone remembers. Friendship cemented by blood cannot be forgotten,” Skovorodin confesses.

Khalimat, a resident of the Botlikh area, is telling the story about her only son, whom she lost ten years ago. She describes how 18-year old Khadzhimurad was a member of the federal forces. He infiltrated the Dagestani militants’ campaign and pretended to join them in their fight.

But his bravery in going undercover soon resulted in his death. He managed to seize a gun and killed four extremists and wounded three. But then a gun was turned on him.

It happened in the yard of their house. The woman says she would like to meet the killer. She addresses him directly:

“You took my son, so give me yours and I will do the same to him.”

The aftermath

Basaev’s insurgence was seen even in his native Chechnya as a fatal mistake, which led to a bloody conflict and years of counter-terrorist operations.

During the month-long battles in Dagestan, Central Russia was shaken by a series of powerful explosions which took the lives of hundreds. Four apartment buildings were blown up, killing innocent people in their homes, many sleeping peacefully.

An immediate consequence of these attacks and the Dagestani conflict was an anti-terrorist operation in Chechnya. By October, this had turned into a full-scale action, marking the beginning of the Second Chechen campaign.

Looking back on the events of 1999, Putin said on Friday during a meeting with Dagestani leadership and veterans:

“It may have initially seemed a small, insignificant conflict, but in reality the integrity of the Russian Federation was at stake. And the crucial moment for the victory over the multinational terrorists was when the Dagestani people came out to fight for their republic and for Russia in general."

Ten years on, low-scale violence continues in the region of Dagestan, though now, officials say, there is no force capable of repeating such a large scale attack.