Officials in the southern Russian republic of Dagestan are asking Moscow for arms in the wake of suspected Islamist attacks they believe are aimed at overthrowing the local government. Moscow correspondent Sophie Lambroschini reports that the volatile situation appears to be deteriorating even further.
Moscow, 5 August 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Recent attacks by suspected Islamist fundamentalists in the southern Russian republic of Dagestan have prompted authorities there to appeal to Moscow to send arms and to allow formation of local militia units.
The Dagestani initiative would provide protection for villagers in outlying areas near the breakaway republic of Chechnya against heavily armed attackers believed to be fundamentalist Wahhabi Muslims based in Chechnya. At least 14 people have died in the gun battles, including 10 attackers.
A Russian government spokesman says the Wahhabis are trying to take territory from Russia to create an independent Islamic republic made up of both Chechnya and Dagestan.
The fighting, mostly in the area around Tsumadin, started Monday when about 40 Muslim fighters crossed into Dagestan from Chechnya. Some guerillas have since returned to Chechnya, while others have stayed behind, reportedly to try to form a "Shariat republic" governed by strict Islamic law.
The Dagestani State Council, cabinet and parliament concluded earlier this week that the attacks are aimed at overthrowing the local government. They asked the Kremlin for urgent help to protect the republic's territorial integrity and its constitutional order.
Russian military officials have not yet reacted to the Dagestani request for arms, but yesterday Moscow said it plans to send additional troops and equipment to the Caucasus to guard against the militants. An army spokesman said the force would combine Interior Ministry troops and army soldiers from the North Caucasus military district. He stopped short of saying how many soldiers are involved.
RFE/RL Caucasus expert Andrei Babitsky says the request by Dagestan for arms and permission to form local militia units is not new and has been used in other Russian regions bordering Chechnya:
"In principle, the process is already underway. Arms began to be handed out [in the southern Russian city of] Stavropol. The Cossacks there have practically been given the right to carry arms. And I think that in Dagestan the situation is the same."
The Dagestani government says three local citizens led the attacks. Among them are Nadirshakh Khatchilaev, a Russian Duma deputy, and his brother Magomed. They made the headlines in May 1998 when their followers occupied local government offices in the capital, Makhatchkala, to demand new elections.
Dagestan's acting security minister, Zagir Arulov, says radical Dagestani Islamists launched the raids from bases in Chechnya. Arulov said the head of the State Council has announced that it is essential for all Dagestanis in Chechnya to -- as he put it -- "come home."
Arulov says the aim of the guerillas is to empty Dagestan of Russian forces:
"They think they are leading a holy war. In the presence of Russian troops, they have to push the Russian troops out of Dagestan and set up here an Islamic republic."
Chechnya's 1994 to 1996 war of independence from Moscow ended with a truce that left Chechnya with de-facto independence, but a formal decision on Chechnya's final political status remains undecided.