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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Islamic Law Rules in Rural Dagestan

MAKHACHKALA, Southern Russia -- A few weeks ago, before the latest eruption of violence in Dagestan, bearded men in combat fatigues sat at a roadblock at the entrance to their mountain village.

A car approached. They lifted their guns and aimed toward it.

When it stopped, they saw a man smoking a cigarette inside and quickly dragged him out and into a nearby building flying a green Islamic flag. There, a mullah told the man the Koran forbids self-abuse, and therefore smoking. The man was taken for punishment - 40 cane blows on the back.

"Please don't beat me in the kidney. I have a bad kidney," the victim pleaded.

"OK, it won't be too bad," one of the guards said.

They proceeded at a leisurely pace, inflicting punishment that looked more exemplary than painful. Nevertheless, the point was made: Russian law means nothing in this part of southern Russia; the Koran is the law of the land.

Across the Caucasus Mountains' region, a rebellious mix of nationalism and Islamic fundamentalism is challenging Moscow's grip.

In recent days, that challenge has escalated into the country's biggest internal military confrontation since the 1994-96 war in neighboring Chechnya. Troops have been battling Islamic militants who seized several Dagestani villages Saturday.

The government also has enlisted the help of some 300 volunteers, who boarded buses Wednesday with a motley assortment of personal firearms to join the battle against the rebels.

As is usually the case when violence erupts in the Caucasus, Russia has blamed Chechnya.

But Dagestan and Chechnya's other neighbors, such as Ingushetia and North Ossetia, have nurtured Islamic independence movements of their own, giving Kremlin leaders nightmares of a fundamentalist tide sweeping away a chunk of southern Russia.

Russia is now digging in for what could become a nasty fight in Dagestan.

Karamakhi, a village 40 kilometers southwest of Dagestan's capital, Makhachkala, is the main stronghold of the Wahhabis, a militant religious sect that has defied Moscow and established Islamic law in Dagestan.

Even before the recent violence in western Dagestan, about 75 kilometers away, Karamakhi and four neighboring villages had become places that Russian officials and troops didn't dare enter.

Together with like-minded secessionists in Chechnya, the Wahhabis in Dagestan have pledged to overthrow the local Russian government and merge the two regions into one independent Islamic republic.

"I don't accept and I don't obey any single Russian law, and neither do my men," the leader of Wahhabis in Dagestan, Bagaudin Magomedov, was quoted by the weekly newspaper Youth of Dagestan as saying.

The fighting is being led by Shamil Basayev, a Chechen fighter who played a key role in deadly attacks against Russia during the Chechen war, and Khattab, a Jordanian who has become one of the most prominent warlords in Chechnya.

The presence of Khattab and Basayev would appear to verify government claims that the rebels are Wahhabis. Khattab has long been said to be a Wahhabi, while Basayev considers them his allies.

"Russian troops have nothing to do in Dagestan, and we consider the local police, who live under Russian law, equally unfaithful," Magomedov said.

A year ago his men put the words into action, evicting local police and administrators from Karamakhi and surrounding villages. Authorities could do nothing, and pleaded to the federal government for help.

Sergei Stepashin, who was the interior minister at the time, went to Karamakhi and reached a pact with the Wahhabis - presenting them with expensive Western-made medical equipment for a local clinic in exchange for a face-saving agreement to let police return to the village.

The Wahhabis agreed to elect a local administrator, but they never let the police come back. Stepashin, who later became prime minister, hasn't spoken publicly about the issue since. His last official duty before being fired as prime minister Monday was to fly to Dagestan to oversee Russia's response to the latest crisis.

The Wahhabis police their territory themselves, enforcing strict Islamic rule among some 10,000 residents. People are forbidden to listen to music or see pictures of living objects. Visitors are only allowed under escort, and cameras are forbidden.

All women dress in Islamic fashion, covering faces and legs. Children aren't allowed to have toy animals or dolls.

While rules are strict, there have been no reported executions or severe punishments for violators. Locals say drunkards, thieves and prostitutes have simply been evicted from the area controlled by the Wahhabis.

The residents' main business is moving cargo. Many families have several big trucks and regularly ferry goods to destinations throughout Russia. There are two kinds of cargo they never accept - alcohol and tobacco.

The transport business pays well. Roads around Karamakhi are in excellent shape, and a visitor is struck by the abundance of Mercedes, BMWs and other expensive foreign cars.

Another source of revenue for Wahhabis is abduction, residents claim. Chechnya and surrounding regions have been awash in kidnappings, with ransoms sometimes in millions of dollars.