Islamic gunmen challenge Yeltsin's rule

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THE WEB of woes enmeshing Boris Yeltsin and his new government tightened yesterday after several hundred armed men stormed into a government building in Russia's turbulent southern republic of Dagestan and hoisted an Islamic flag.

The fresh threat of trouble in the Caucasus - one of the Kremlin's recurring nightmares - comes as the President and his month-old administration grapples with a host of problems, from a coal miners' protest that brought trains to a halt, to a national budget ravaged by the Asia crisis and low oil prices.

Russian Interior Ministry troops were yesterday patrolling the streets of Dagestan's capital, Makhachkala, after gunmen said to be supporters of a Muslim politician in the Russian parliament seized control of the republic's government headquarters, installed machineguns on the roof, and began firing skywards shouting "God is Great!".

Reports said that as the stand-off unfolded, several thousand protesters, some armed, gathered outside and then marched on the central square, demanding the resignation of Dagestan's regional government and new elections.

The flare-up was serious enough to prompt Mr Yeltsin to recall his new Interior Minister, Sergei Stepashin from a trip to France and place him in charge of an emergency security services centre in the Dagestan capital, where local security services sealed off the main streets. The President was said to be receiving hourly reports on the situation in the republic.

Last night the situation seemed to be calming. The gunmen were reported to have agreed to leave the building in return for a promise of no prosecutions. But the incident has served as unwanted reminder to Moscow that ethnic and religious strife in Dagestan, which has been simmering ominously for months, could erupt into prolonged civil conflict.

The fear is not that Dagestan, a mostly Muslim republic of two million, will rise up in a war of independence against Russia, like neighbouring Chechnya. Dagestan is too divided and too reliant on federal subsidies to mount a realistic bid to split from Russia. Yesterday, significantly, the gunmen's green Islamic flag fluttered alongside a Russian one.

The risk is rather that it will slump into a nasty local war, adding a further burden on Moscow's dwindling resources and increasing nationalist sentiment in the rest of Russia. Dagestan occupies a crucial route for Caspian oil and includes a key port.

The motive for yesterday's trouble was uncertain, but it seems to have arisen from a complex local feud. It reportedly began with a clash between the police and bodyguards for Nadir Khachilayev, a member of the Russian parliament and head of Russia's Muslim Union, a leading Islamic group. At least two police died.

Ethnic tensions in Dagestan, which lies on the western shores of the Caspian, are as native to the region as sheep, mountains and guns. Though only the size of Scotland, Dagestan has 29 different languages and at least 30 ethnic groups, vying for resources and power in one of the poorest corners of Russia. Loyalty to clan, village and mosque far outweigh the fragile bonds which hold it within the Russian Federation.

This unstable cocktail became more explosive with the collapse of the Soviet empire. Crime, corruption, power struggles over control over Caspian caviar rackets, and precipitous economic decline have added to the tension with their distant Moscow masters.

Violence from neighbouring Chechnya has regularly spilled over the border. And, fuelled by internal rivalries, it has repeatedly flared up on their own soil with bombings, shootings and hostage taking. These have rumbled on, despite efforts to counter them by the Moscow-backed regional leaders - still dominated by the Communist-era nomenclature.

In recent years, a new spectre has loomed: inter-Islamic strife. The end of Soviet religious repression has seen the arrival of clerical emissaries from Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Muslim world. To the dismay of the local Muslim leaders, they have launched a campaign of proselytising, recruitment and mosque building.

All this is adding to the hefty burden now facing Boris Yeltsin and his inexperiencedPrime Minister, Sergei Kiriyenko. Yesterday their problems grew worse, after trade unions called for Russia's coal miners to stop work until they get long-overdue wages. For almost a week, the miners have been staging wildcat protests, including cutting off the Trans- Siberian rail artery. Mr Kiriyenko claims to have found some cash for the miners but is fighting to defend a budget under pressure from low tax revenues and a market nosedive triggered by the Asian crisis and a drop in oil prices.