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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

'Caviar Mafia' Invades Caspian Guard Station

A crowd of at least 100 poachers and their relatives have stormed a coast guard station in Dagestan and forcibly retrieved their confiscated boats and fishing nets in a well-organized attack that local officials described as part of an ongoing war with the local "caviar mafia."

Scores of irate poachers broke down a fence at a coast guard unit in the Caspian Sea town of Izberbash on Sunday and seized at least 18 motor boats confiscated earlier that day, an official at the unit said Tuesday in a telephone interview from the Dagestani capital, Makhachkala.

The official, who asked not to be named, said the poachers used their wives and children as a human shield to prevent guards from shooting. He said the 100-strong crowd didn't only seize the boats, but also beat up several servicemen, as well as some policemen summoned as backup by the unit's command.

He said the nets had been confiscated by the unit's Derbent patrol vessel in the waters off Izberbash earlier Sunday.

A group of poachers on several motor boats had tried to prevent the confiscations, the official said, but retreated when two more patrol boats rushed to the Derbent's rescue.

Dagestani police spokesman Abdul Musayev confirmed that the poachers tried to storm the guard post Sunday, but denied that they had been successful.

In a telephone interview from Makhachkala on Tuesday, Musayev said police estimated that the crowd gathered outside the unit included up to 300 men, women and children. But Musayev said they retreated when police commandos arrived at the scene.

He said the crowd went on to block a road from Makhachkala to Izberbash for about 10 minutes, but dispersed after Dagestan's Deputy Interior Minister Ismail Ismailov negotiated with the group's leaders.

Both Musayev and Dagestan's presidential spokesman Eduard Urazayev said the attack came as a result of federal restrictions on sturgeon fishing and the caviar trade.

According to Urazayev, thousands of people engage in poaching in Dagestan, where the unemployment rate hovers around 20 percent — one of the highest in Russia.

Investigations conducted in 1999 by the Prosecutor General's Office and the Audit Chamber revealed that illegal fishing in Russia turns over from $2 billion to $4 billion a year.

The coast guard official said his comrades are regularly confronted by poachers — who last year went so far as to kidnap a high-ranking officer of the Izberbash unit who they hoped to exchange for some confiscated boats. The officer was later released without a trade-off.

Dagestani coast guards confiscated 64 tons of fish and 184 kilograms of caviar from poachers last year and 10 tons of fish this year, the official said.

"There is a so-called caviar mafia here and we have to fight all the time," he said.

Dagestani and federal law enforcement officials are still looking for clues in the bombing of an apartment building that killed 80 civilians, mostly border guards and their families, in the coastal city of Caspiisk in 1996.

Investigators said that they believe the blast may have been ordered by heavyweights in the illegal caviar trade.