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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

7 on Trial In Attack On Perm OMON

MAKHACHKALA, Dagestan — One early spring morning in Chechnya, a column of 48 servicemen left Vedeno for a town up in the mountains, but part way into the trip one truck's radiator overheated and the column came to a halt. A band of Islamic rebels spied the vulnerable troops and attacked.

Only five of the servicemen survived to tell about it. The rebels killed 32 men on the spot and took 11 more prisoner, later offering to trade them for Colonel Yury Budanov, who was in military custody on charges of murdering a young Chechen woman. The offer was turned down, and the mutilated bodies of the prisoners were later found in a nearby village.

On Monday, seven men accused of participating in the attack on the Perm OMON unit on March 29, 2000, went on trial in Dagestan's Supreme Court. They face from 20 years behind bars to life imprisonment if convicted.

The suspects appeared in court before Judge Butta Ivaisov to begin hearing the case against them. Six of them sat together inside the defendants' cage, but the seventh, Eduard Valiakhmetov of Tatarstan, sat outside. He has given evidence against the others and was afraid to be confined with them, a court officer said.

Some of the suspects' relatives and a delegation from the Perm OMON joined journalists in the courtroom.

The accused acted strangely, as if under the influence of drugs. They reacted slowly to questions and had to have questions repeated several times. One of them, Magdi Magomedov, 35, kept squeezing his head.

Investigators say the defendants were under the command of Abu-Quteiba, a warlord of Arab origin who is based in the Shatoi region.

Valiakhmetov, 18, and Shamil Kitov, 31, from Karachayevo-Cherkessia, are not accused of taking part in the attack, but are on trial with the others because they are suspected of belonging to the same rebel formation.

The other five — Magomedov, 35; Imamshamil Atayev, 26; Gadzhi Batyrov, 22; Khairula Kuzaaliev, 27; and Atai Mirzayev, 31 — are all from Karamakhi, Dagestan, and are followers of Wahhabism, an austere brand of Islam.

Investigators told the court that Atayev was found to be mentally ill and asked that he be sent for treatment. No decision was made Monday.

In 1998, residents of Karamakhi proclaimed the village to be independent Islamic territory and drove out all state officials. The Wahhabis introduced Islamic Shariah law and punished violators by beating them with sticks, a job carried out by Magomedov, according to investigators.

Dagestani law enforcers tried to take back the village several times, but without success. For more than a year, armed Wahhabis guarded their independence in Karamakhi, located 140 kilometers southwest of Makhachkala, the Dagestani capital.

Then in September 1999, federal troops moved into Dagestan in response to incursions by Khattab and Shamil Basayev, two rebel commanders based across the border in Chechnya, and pounced on Karamakhi. The conflict lasted a month and ended with total destruction of the village where 3,000 people had lived.

Many of the Wahhabis joined the separatists in Chechnya.

On March 29, 2000, Perm OMON officers together with Chechen policemen from the Vedeno interior department set out from Vedeno in two military trucks and two armored personnel carriers. They were headed to Tsentoroi, a village up in the mountains of southern Chechnya.

Investigators pieced together the story of what happened that day from survivors and perhaps some of the men on trial. Their account has been published in the local press.

The column had only gone several kilometers when at about 7 a.m. near the village of Zhani-Vedeno the radiator of one of the trucks boiled over. The vehicles stopped, except for one of the APCs, which continued down the road and disappeared behind a hill.

At this time, rebels from Abu-Quteiba's detachment were in the area conducting reconnaissance and decided to attack the stalled military column. First they captured the APC that was separated from the rest, killing everyone inside. They tried to drive off in the APC, but when it died they burned it to ashes and turned their attention to the rest of the OMON group.

The din of the battle was heard in Vedeno and a new federal detachment was sent to help their trapped comrades, but it was ambushed along the way by more of Abu-Quteiba's fighters. By the time officers reached the original battle ground, they found only five OMON servicemen alive.

The rebels had killed 32 servicemen and taken 11 prisoner. They addressed Russian authorities with an offer to exchange the captured men for Budanov, but the offer was declined. On May 1, their bodies were found near the village of Dargo in the Vedeno region. Budanov is now on trial in a military court in Rostov-on-Don in southern Russia.

During the course of the investigation, prosecutors established the names of five more men suspected of taking part in the attack. They are on Russia's wanted list.

The trial is expected to last for several weeks because of the large number of witnesses to be questioned, many of whom live outside of Dagestan.

Charges brought by the North Caucasus directorate of the Prosecutor General's Office include murder, participation in illegal armed formations, hostage-taking and illegal weapons possession.