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Until very recently, the activities of Islamic militants in Daghestan have been confined primarily to the northern Khasavyurt Raion that borders on Chechnya; the Russian military base at Buynaksk; and the mountainous central Untsukul Raion, in particular the village of Gimri, the last bastion of resistance in the 19th century to advancing Tsarist Russian forces and still largely a "no-go area" beyond the control of the republican authorities.
Police and security forces have also launched special operations on a number of occasions, most recently in November 2007 and again last month, against militants who moved to Makhachkala to spend the winter months there.
Since the beginning of this year, however, Russian media have reported a string of clashes with militants in the extreme south of Daghestan. On January 8, Interior Minister Lieutenant General Adilgirey Magomedtagirov personally commanded an operation to surround and apprehend a group of suspected fighters in the southeastern Tabasaran Raion. At least one, and possible two militants were killed and one police officer injured in a shoot-out on January 8; police then surrounded a house where the militants took refuge and destroyed it with mortar fire on January 9, killing at least five of them, senior Russian and Daghestan Interior Ministry officials told a press conference in Makhachkala on January 10.
Three of the dead men have been identified as natives of Derbent, on the southern Caspian coast; they are said to have belonged to a group of militants commanded by Elgar Malachilov, a deputy to former Daghestan jamaat head Rappani Khalilov who was killed in a special operation five months ago.
In a statement posted on February 10 on the website kavkazcenter.com, the self-styled Shariat jamaat that is based in Daghestan disclosed that in 2004, acting on orders from then Shariat jamaat head Rasul Makarsharipov, Yasin Rasulov, one of its members and author of a thoughtful historical analysis of Islamic resistance in the North Caucasus, traveled to Derbent to establish a jamaat there with the aim of opening a "second front." Makarsharipov was killed in a shoot-out in July 2005 and Rasulov in April 2006; their deaths may partially explain why the Derbent jamaat has only now emerged from the shadows.
In a statement posted on January 21 on kavkazcenter.com, the Derbent jamaat confirms the identity, and praises the heroism, of six of its members killed in the fighting in Tabasaran. The statement also sheds light on conditions in Derbent, claiming that practicing Muslims there "can no longer go in peace to the mosque to perform the namaz."
It claims that whereas previously officials adduced the need to "protect traditional Islam" (presumably against the pernicious influence of "Wahhabism"), today young people are warned against any involvement with Islam whatsoever. The statement claims the climate of fear in Derbent is such that "young people are afraid to attend the funerals of their friends who became shahids in Tabasaran."
Police launched a second operation on February 3 to apprehend a group of militants in Suleiman-Stalsky Raion, which lies immediately south of Tabasaran. The militants managed to escape but were pursued further south to Dokuzpar Raion (which borders on Azerbaijan), where two of them were killed in a shoot-out on February 7 and a third captured. Meanwhile, one fighter was killed in Derbent on February 5.
Meeting in Makhachkala on February 13 with visiting First Deputy Russian Prosecutor-General Aleksandr Bastrykin, Daghestan's President Mukhu Aliyev admitted that the situation throughout the republic remains tense. He mentioned specifically "isolated criminal groups active in the south of the republic." Whether Aliyev was referring to the Derbent jamaat or to purely criminal formations remains unclear.
So, too, does the ethnic makeup of the Derbent jamaat, and the extent of contacts between that jamaat and co-believers and co-ethnics in Azerbaijan: three days after the initial abortive attempt on February 3 to apprehend the group of fighters in Suleiman-Stalsky Raion, police detained in the village of Tselegyun an unnamed citizen of Azerbaijan suspected of "belonging to an illegal armed formation." Azeris are believed to be the largest ethnic group in Derbent, which has a population of approximately 100,000, followed by the Lezgins (who also live in the districts of northern Azerbaijan bordering on Daghestan) and the Tabasarans (the seventh-largest of Daghestan's 14 titular nationalities).