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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Chechen Warlord Behind New Revolt




Raising the stakes in the battle raging between Islamic militants and Russian troops in Dagestan, the rebels announced Wednesday that their holy war was being led by two notorious Chechen warlords - Shamil Basayev and Khattab.


Basayev himself met with reporters - who Reuters said had been driven across the mountains from the Chechen capital in Basayev's own off-road vehicle - to make his presence known.


Basayev led the raid on Budyonnovsk in southern Russia during the 1994-96 Chechen war and helped mastermind Russia's humiliating defeat. His announcement that he is commanding the rebellion in Dagestan is likely to make it even more likely that Moscow will take a hard line in the conflict.


Russia intensified its bombing campaign Wednesday. Officials insisted the rebels were encircled near the border with Chechnya and would soon be swept from the remote mountain villages they seized last Saturday.


But Basayev also claimed to have the upper hand. He said his troops were firmly entrenched and had surrounded Russian forces in the area.


'We have practically encircled and blocked three units, although one battalion managed to get away," Basayev said in footage shown Wednesday on television. "By this operation we have prevented the genocide of civilians."


Acting Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who was appointed Monday, also said the situation was under control. But he came under criticism during a meeting with members of the Federation Council, parliament's upper house, who said the military wasn't doing enough to drive out the rebels.


Putin, the former security chief, said there would be no need to introduce a state of emergency. "For the moment there is no such necessity, but the law envisages such a possibility and we will use all the means envisaged by the law, if needed," he said.


He has promised to restore order in Dagestan within two weeks, and Interior Minister Vladimir Rushailo said Wednesday the deadline would be met.


The commander of Interior Ministry troops,Vyacheslav Ovchinnikov, estimated that 1,200 rebels were in Dagestan, a figure twice as large as previous estimates.


Basayev said so many volunteers have joined the rebellion that he signed an order renaming the Islamic Peacekeeping Brigade the Islamic Peacekeeping Army to reflect its growing size, and made Khattab the chief commander.


Khattab, a Jordanian, is a leading Wahhabi militant in Chechnya. Many of the rebels are members of the fundamentalist Wahhabi sect of Islam who support independence for Russia's mostly Moslem regions in the Caucasus Mountains.


"Our main task is to help our Moslem brothers, who are trying to eliminate the Russian and local puppet authorities. The Moslems just want to live according to their own laws, but they have been forbidden to do so, and the Russian troops, including three punitive battalions, have been drawn here," Basayev said.


Exact casualty figures in the fighting are hard to come by. The Interior Ministry said Wednesday that 10 of its troops had been killed and 27 wounded during the five-day campaign.


Dagestan's Interior Ministry put the death toll among the militants at 44, with 80 more wounded in Tuesday's fighting, and said 6,000 civilians had fled the fighting. There was no way to independently confirm the figures.


Basayev claimed his army had shot down seven Russian helicopters and one plane. Russia has acknowledged losing only two helicopters so far. One helicopter carrying food and arms to the federal troops based in Botlikh district was forced to land Wednesday when it was hit by rebel fire, Interfax reported.


Russian planes bombed the Tando settlement in the Botlikh district where the rebels had one of their strongholds. The rebels had been cut off by federal troops, Rushailo said.


"Although other guerrillas are trying to approach them from the Dagestan-Chechen border, we are trying to prevent that and are working to eliminate them," Rushailo said on NTV television.


Dagestan's political and religious leaders oppose the rebels and have been recruiting volunteers to fight alongside the Russian forces. Interfax reported that 300 armed volunteers departed for the Botlikh district Wednesday. The battalion was formed in Dagestan's capital, Makhachkala, from former servicemen with experience in Afghanistan


and conflicts in the former Soviet Union.


Basayev, who served briefly as Chechnya's prime minister last year, said his fighters were independent of the Chechen government, which he split from last year.


The Chechen government also continued to distance itself from the rebellion.


The Dagestan fighting is the largest challenge to Russian authority since the war with Chechnya.


This time around, Basayev says the future of the whole North Caucasus is at stake.


"If Russia leaves the Caucasus by itself, we will leave it alone," Basayev told reporters in his Dagestani stronghold, Reuters reported. "If it does not, we will force it to go."