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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russia Retakes Key Dagestani Villages




Federal troops on Tuesday appeared to have gained the upper hand against the Islamic extremists they have been battling for the past two weeks in Dagestan's Botlikh district. But achieving a full victory in this Caucasus republic could prove to be a mission impossible for Russian troops.


The Chechen-led rebels may have withdrawn, but they vow to stay in this mountain enclave to wage their holy war by any means.


Joint forces of the Defense and Interior ministries took control of the Botlikh villages of Tando, Rakhata, Shodrota, Ansalta and Ashino villages late Tuesday, said Zaira Omarova, spokeswoman for the Dagestani branch of the Federal Security Service, or FSB.


After seizing these villages, federal troops were trying to intercept and destroy the remaining rebels who are believed to have splintered into small groups that may be hiding in the mountains.


"The military campaign in the classical sense of this word is over," said Yevgeny Ryabtsev, head of the federal Interior Ministry's press center in Dagestan. "Now it is time for law enforcers to mop up that area."


However, while the Islamic rebels may have lost ground, they still remain in Dagestan, local officials said.


A spokesman for the rebels said Monday that they had moved into a new phase of their holy war, switching to guerrilla tactics to conduct surprise attacks and maintain a presence in Dagestan.


It may prove to be a "tough and long-term task" to wipe them out, admitted an official at the FSB's Dagestani unit.


"[Chechen leader Shamil] Basayev will fight stubbornly to remain here because he will completely lose face if he retreats to Chechnya," said local FSB spokeswoman Omarova.


According to an FSB analysis, the rebels will avoid large-scale confrontations but may try to stage terrorist acts in the Dagestani districts of Khasavyurt, Buinaks, Novolaksky and Kazbek as well as at key sites such as power plants.


Alexei Malashenko, an expert on the volatile North Caucasus at the Moscow Carnegie Center, agreed that Basayev is limited to organizing small groups that may stage acts of terrorism in Dagestan to avoid a total defeat.


The Chechen warlord has already suffered a humiliating defeat by failing to launch an anti-Russian rebellion in Dagestan, Malashenko said.


"Basayev was hoping people would take up arms to support him, but the Dagestanis united against him," Malashenko said.


Indeed, according to an FSB official, even members of Dagestan's numerous organized crime groups have turned their guns against the Islamic rebels, causing a tangible drop in the republic's crime rate.


But Alexander Iskandryan, head of Moscow's Center for Caucasian Studies, disagreed that the rebel withdrawal is a defeat for Basayev.


Instead, Iskandryan said, Basayev has won the respect of fellow Chechen field commanders by holding out for more than three weeks in the Botlikh district.


Yet Basayev's influence among the Islamists may be limited.


Dagestani members of the fundamentalist Wahhabite sect have refused to support Basayev despite the fact he has declared a holy war on Russia and vowed to enforce Islamic Sharia rule in Dagestan, the FSB official said.


Dagestanis have been allowed to either legalize their guns or acquire weapons from local arsenals in an attempt by federal agencies to form a volunteer force to help repel the invasion.


As a result, thousands of Dagestanis are openly carrying guns on the streets, although only 350 of them participated in the federal troops' campaign in the Botlikh district.


Many of these volunteers belong to different ethnic groups and may eventually remember their own differences and turn their guns against each other once the conflict in the Botlikh district dies down, Iskandryan warned.


Iskandryan said a rebellion can take place if federal authorities fail to revive Dagestan's crisis-stricken economy to create jobs in the republic.


First Deputy Prime Minister Viktor Khristenko announced Tuesday that the federal government will allocate an additional 300 million rubles by October to help residents restore houses damaged in the fighting.