Prague, 3 September 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Following the claim last week that the "first phase" of the campaign against the Chechen-led guerrillas in Dagestan was successful, Russian Interior Ministry troops this week began phase two, targeting four villages in central Dagestan's Buinaksk district.
The residents of those villages have been portrayed in the Russian press as "Wahhabis," a term indiscriminately applied in the North Caucasus and Central Asia to both Islamic fundamentalists and also to any devout Muslims considered a threat to local authorities.
The inhabitants of the villages of Chabanmakhi and Karamakhi were said to have sympathized with the Chechen-led incursion. But the Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya gazeta said Russian commanders made a change from some of the tactics they used in Chechnya.
The paper said the Russian military attempted to persuade the villagers to lay down their arms, and only launched artillery strikes against the Chechen militants who had retreated to those villages after the civilian population had departed.
After three days of heavy fighting, Russian Interior Ministry spokesmen yesterday claimed to have taken control of Chabanmakhi and Karamakhi.
But in comments today, ministry spokesman Yevgeny Ryabtsev said rebels still hold Chabanmakhi and that federal troops are being attacked regularly in Karamakhi. An AFP correspondent in the region today quoted Russian servicemen as expressing surprise at the strength of the militants.
Russia continued today with artillery and helicopter attacks against rebel positions, which were well hidden in the heavily forested mountains. Rainy weather hindered the military's efforts. According to journalists who have seen the fighting, the federal troops have been occupying the villages during the day, but retreating at night when they came under fire from the militants.
The Russian Interior Ministry reports that since the latest phase of fighting began, 26 Russian troops have been killed and more than 150 wounded. Rebel losses are reported to be more than 100. None of these figures could be confirmed.
Meanwhile, up to 2,000 Chechen guerrillas were said to be massed on the border between Chechnya and Dagestan.
That deployment may well be in anticipation of a third round of fighting, in which Nezavisimaya gazeta predicts the federal forces will attempt to cross the border from Dagestan into Chechnya to annihilate once and for all the network of training camps organized by Jordanian-born field commander Khattab.
Meanwhile, the attacks on Chabanmakhi and Karamakhi, and reprisals by some local authorities in Dagestan against "Wahhabis," risk engendering a policy disagreement within the Dagestani leadership.
While Dagestan State Council chairman Magomedali Magomedov has called for a crackdown on "wahhabism" -- thus virtually giving carte blanche to local officials to target whomever they please -- Deputy Premier Gadzhi Makhachev expressed his opposition to the punitive action against Karamakhi villagers, whom he described as "brothers."