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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Rebel Band on the Run in Dagestan

Hundreds of federal troops combed Dagestan on Tuesday for a group of rebels that swept through two villages over the past two days, killing nine border guards and taking 11 civilians hostage.

The rebels released all 11 hostages Tuesday morning before abandoning their overnight stay at the village of Galatly, located in Dagestan's westernmost Tsuntinsky district, Eduard Urazayev, spokesman for Dagestani President Magomedali Magomedov, said by telephone from Makhachkala.

A federal helicopter spotted part of the group near the village of Mokokh Tuesday morning, spraying the rebels with machine-gun and killing at least six, Colonel Sergei Levantsov, spokesman for the North Caucasus command of the border guard service, said by telephone from Stavropol.

Supported by gunships, some 700 servicemen and police commandos scoured snow-bound mountain passes in western Dagestan.

Federal commanders said the seek-and-destroy operation could last several days. "I strongly hope ... that the remaining bandits will be detected, captured or destroyed in the nearest future," Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov told reporters in Moscow.

Part of the group could be heading northwest for Chechnya, while others could be trying to cross over into Georgia, whose border is about 20 kilometers west of Galatly, Urazayev said.

He said it would be next to impossible to cross into Georgia without special mountaineering equipment as all the passes are covered in deep snow and ice.

Dagestani officials said the band could have been based in Dagestan for months, local news agencies reported. Urazayev said the group could have marched into the Tsuntinsky district from the neighboring Tsumadinsky district.

According to Levantsov, however, the band could have sneaked into Dagestan from Chechnya in an effort to cross into Georgia after failing to cross the Russian-Georgian frontier in Chechnya.

The rebels were first spotted in the Tsuntinsky district on Sunday evening, when small groups of scouts visited local villages to buy food and inquire about the locations of local police stations and border guard posts, Kommersant reported.

A large part of the band spent Sunday night in the village of Shaury, prompting three villagers to alert border guards at an outpost in Mokokh. Nine border guards set out to Shaury on Monday morning in a truck, but they were ambushed and slain by the rebels en route, NTV reported Tuesday.

The three villagers drove back together with the border guards but one of them fell out of the truck when it slid on an icy curve and broke his rib, one of the trio, Akhkubek Mullayev, told NTV on Tuesday evening.

Mullayev said border guard commander Ragim Khalikov suggested that they walk back to the village while his unit continued the trip.

After the ambush, the rebels loaded the guards' bodies into the truck and pushed it into a ravine, where it was later found by federal servicemen. National television channels showed footage of a bloodstained GAZ-66 truck lying upside down in the ravine.

After killing the border guards, the rebels took four Shaury residents hostage and left the village of some 1,000 for Galatly, located some 20 kilometers to the northwest, Urazayev said.

It was unclear Tuesday whether the band of 40 to 60 Chechens, Dagestanis and Arabs split into several groups before the Monday night stay in Galatly or afterward. The rebels took seven people hostage at Galatly and left before federal forces and police arrived Tuesday, Urazayev said.

The rebels released all of the 11 hostages shortly afterward, he said.

One of the hostages, a young man, told Rossia television on Tuesday that the rebels had treated the captives well and even apologized before setting them free.

The rebels' Kavkaz web site posted its own account of the events Tuesday, citing a Dagestani rebel commander operating in the republic.

The unidentified commander said a group of Dagestani "volunteer-mujahedins" carried out a "planned operation" to kill about 10 border guards Monday morning. He said the band suffered no casualties and promised new attacks.

Since rebels are continuing their armed resistance in neighboring Chechnya, similar incursions will no doubt occur again in Dagestan, a border guard officer said by telephone. He said the region's rugged terrain could make it difficult to root out the rebels, but promised that federal forces would react swiftly to any attacks.

"We have already seen their asses on the run on a number of occasions, and if anybody still has any doubts about the outcome, we will prove it to them," said the officer, who asked not to be identified.