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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Fundamentalists Hold Dagestani Police at Bay

Islamic fundamentalists who have taken over two villages in the southern province of Dagestan and reportedly declared independence from Russia continued their tense face-off with law enforcement officers on Tuesday.

Dagestani government officials say they hope to peacefully settle the stand-off with armed members of the radical Moslem Wahhabite sect. Government spokesman Eduard Uruzayev said the Dagestani parliament and government would hold an emergency joint sitting Wednesday to discuss the crisis.

But Dagestani police were less sanguine. In a telephone interview Tuesday, police spokesman Mark Tolchinsky said that there was "almost no hope" of a peaceful solution. He said that Dagestani police were gearing up to disarm the militant rebels by force.

"[Peaceful methods] have all been exhausted already," Tolchinsky said.

Colonel Charles Blandy, an analyst with the Sandhurst Conflict Resolution Center in Britain, reached by telephone, agreed that the Dagestani authorities had few choices left but to disarm the Wahhabites. Otherwise, he said, the "unpredictable" Wahhabites could "start things up" in already volatile Dagestan.

Wahhabism, the state religion of Saudi Arabia, is an offshoot of traditional Islam that among other things advocates one of the harshest interpretations of Islamic Sharia law, which even in its lightest form brings down punishments like public beatings or the cutting off of limbs for various crimes and misdemeanors.

Saudi Arabia is by some accounts sponsoring a proliferation of Wahhabism among Russia's Moslem republics, and Russian officials estimate there are about 4,000 Wahhabites in Dagestan and thousands more in Chechnya, Ingushetia and other parts of the Caucasus, as well as some in central Russia.

In Dagestan, the Wahhabites have been feuding with authorities for months. In May, they took advantage of armed clashes in the capital of Makhachkala to raid the police stations in the villages of Karamakhi and Chabanmakhi, Uruzayev said. Wahhabite rebels forced out local law enforcement officials, established Sharia law and elected new municipal administrations, he said.

Uruzayev said police driven out of those villages set up a road block not far away. He said the Wahhabites have repeatedly fired upon the check-point over the summer, with police returning fire, but that so far no casualties had been reported.

On Sunday, the Wahhabite rebels set up their own blockade of a key highway that connects Makhachkala with the mountainous villages of central Dagestan. Interfax reported that three villages -- Karamakhi, Chabanmakhi and Kadar -- on Sunday declared themselves "a separate Islamic territory."

But Uruzayev on Tuesday denied that residents had ever made any such declaration. He said only two villages, Karamakhi and Chabanmakhi, were refusing to let law enforcement officials in. He also said the Wahhabites had removed their road block Tuesday, after negotiations late Monday with representatives of Dagestan's political and religious leadership.

Religious leaders and government officials of Russia's other North Caucasus republics, including those of separatist Chechnya, have repeatedly lashed out at Wahhabites.

Muftis of these republics gathered in the Ingush capital of Nazran on Monday to announce a joint crusade against radical sects, including Wahhabites.

"Wahhabism is a plague brought here to splinter Islam," the Mufti of Chechnya, Akhmad-Khadzhi Kadyrov, was quoted by Itar-Tass as saying at the meeting.

Fahrid Asadullin of Central Russia's Muftiate said that Wahhabism and other brands of extremism would continue to spread unless Russia took action to fight poverty and unemployment in the North Caucasus.