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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Anger Drives Insurgents in South

ReutersLarisa Dorogova, left, and Fatima Mamayeva looking at photos of militants killed in the Oct. 13 attack on Nalchik.
NALCHIK -- Timur Mamayev was repeatedly beaten by police, who insulted his religion and harassed his children, his wife says. He appealed for help to the authorities but got no answer.

Mamayev's patience snapped in mid-October when, as part of a group of 150 young Muslims, he attacked government buildings in Nalchik.

"It was a protest. They did not want to win independence, 150 people would not win anything. They sacrificed themselves in an attempt to change things," said his wife, Fatima, 32.

She says she has not seen her husband since the day of the attack.

To the authorities, her husband is a terrorist who tried to overthrow secular rule. To his relatives, he was just a desperate man trying to make his point the only way he could.

Some 24 police officers and 93 rebels died in the clashes in Nalchik, a grid of dusty, tree-lined streets with ramshackle single-story houses in the Kabardino-Balkaria republic.

The authorities saw the assault as further proof of the insidious spread of international terrorism across the poor south, and President Vladimir Putin called the crushing of the revolt a victory.

Separatists from nearby Chechnya said they staged the raid with support from local anti-Kremlin insurgents.

But Nalchik's residents saw the uprising as part of a pattern in the Muslim North Caucasus, from Dagestan in the east to Kabardino-Balkaria in the west.

They say that young men exhausted by police harassment and frustrated by official corruption were following the example of their fellow Muslims in Chechnya and taking the fight into their own hands -- not to win independence, but to get even.

"The police declared war on Muslims. And these lads gave up thinking they could achieve anything peacefully, so they took up their guns so people would hear them," said Larisa Dorogova, a lawyer who describes herself as representing "believers."

"This is not a war between religions, or between nations. It is between police and believers," she said.

Islam is one of Russia's four official religions, and the country's approximately 20 million Muslims have their right to worship enshrined in the Constitution. Officials have repeatedly emphasized that the Chechen war and operations in neighboring regions such as Kabardino-Balkaria are not aimed at Muslims but at terrorists.

Analysts, however, said oppression and harassment of Muslims, and the closure of mosques -- Nalchik has only one official mosque after the others were shut -- had sparked the revolt.

"What happened was caused on the one hand by Islam, and on the other hand by the inept behavior of the local authorities and police who provoked the population," said Alexei Malashenko, a scholar with the Carnegie Moscow Center. "The security problem was a result of the stupid policies of the local government. ... I think there is no link to international terrorism."

Nalchik's Muslims have many theories about police behavior -- some say they are targeted because they do not give bribes. Attitudes toward Muslims among the security forces and officials have hardened under the influence of the Chechen war and linked attacks, like the Beslan school hostage-taking.

"It is clear that there is a massive repression [of Muslims] throughout Russia, which is scary," said Tatyana Kasatkina, executive director of human rights group Memorial. "Force of arms achieves nothing. Our work in the North Caucasus shows that people who are attacked by police are not just bandits but ordinary people, and this just helps the people who we call terrorists."

Chechen separatist leader Abdul-Khalim Sadulayev claimed his commanders helped organize the Nalchik attack. Chechen rebels, keen to bolster anyone who can put pressure on federal troops, have offered help to guerrillas elsewhere.

Eduard Kornienko / Reuters

Young men standing near the body of a dead gunman in Nalchik on Oct. 14.

"Today the forces opposed to Russia, not finding other ways of fighting tyranny, come to us and that is a great help for us," Sadulayev said after the Oct. 13 bloodshed in Nalchik.

Officials have accused the Chechens of wanting to set up an Islamic state between the Black and Caspian seas.

"Anyone who picks up arms, threatens the life and health of our citizens and the integrity of the Russian state will be dealt with in the same way," Putin said after the Nalchik attack was put down. "Our actions have to be commensurate with all the threats that bandits pose for our country."

Activists say Putin's tactics merely spur more rebels to take up arms, stoking the very problem they are meant to solve."

Relatives of the dead in Nalchik said what angered them most was the state's refusal to release the bodies for burial.

Authorities said that since the dead men were suspected of terrorism they would be buried in unmarked graves.

Fatima Mamayeva used her cell phone to show a film of the vans used to store the bodies of those killed on Oct. 13. She failed to find her husband among them.

In the gloomy vans, naked bodies lay piled on top of each other. Necks and arms were twisted at impossible angles.

"I went into the wagons three times before I found the body of my son. He was lying on his face, so I turned him over to see him, and his insides just fell out," said Said Tishikov, whose 25-year-old son, Ruslan, was among the dead.

Relatives said Moscow's failure to win over devout young Muslims was just storing up trouble for the future.

"Why should this not repeat itself? They are going after children and wives now. Some people will bear this, but others will take up their weapons again," said Mamayeva, her face drawn and serious beneath a tight headscarf.