Rebels stage new invasion of Dagestan

LESS THAN a fortnight after federal forces said they had expelled Chechen militants from Dagestan, gunmen from the effectively independent, rogue state made another incursion into the mountainous region where the majority of people seem to want to remain in Russia.

The invaders, reported to number several hundred, seized villages yesterday while the authorities were trying to rescue survivors from a bomb blast that destroyed a block of Russian army flats in the town of Buinaksk, Dagestan's second city, on Saturday night.

Vladimir Kolesnikov, Russia's first deputy interior minister, linked the bombing to the incursion. Russians, fearing that their sons could be sucked into a war as bloody as the 1994-1996 conflict between Russia and Chechnya, saw the developments as evidence that the army had been premature in declaring victory over the Islamic fundamentalists.

The Buinaksk bomb, planted in a truck outside the building, killed 22 people and injured100. Yesterday, relatives searched for victims who might be trapped under rubble. Another bomb, found near the hospital in Buinaksk, was defused.

The bombed flats housed officers from the 156th Brigade and their families. Many of the victims were women and children. "Curse you, damn you all," a woman wailed. "We women will join the fight against you [invaders from Chechnya]."

As when they invaded Dagestan last month, occupying Botlikh district, the Chechens were believed to be led by the warlord Shamil Basayev, who operates with Khattab, a fighter of Jordanian or Saudi Arabian origin, who yesterday announced: "The Muslims in the Caucasus have the forces to solve any issue by military means. We will help the mujahedin, as Pakistan helped Afghanistan."

Russia objects to southern parts of the federation being compared to Afghanistan under Soviet occupation and has warned Muslim states not to interfere in its internal affairs.

Faster than predicted and with the relatively light loss of 60 conscripts, the Russians forced the Chechens out of Botlikh district last month. The army got a boost, as did Russia's new Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin. But the Defence Minister, Igor Sergeyev, said the Chechens could resort to terrorism. The bombing of a Moscow shopping mall last week is still being investigated. While anarchists disgusted with consumerism are among the suspects, police have not ruled out a Caucasus link.

Within days of the Chechens being expelled from Botlikh, Russian forces were again in action, trying to disarm the Wahabbites, a sect that had welcomed the invaders and whorefuse to recognise Russia's jurisdiction. The Russians found it harder than expected to winkle out the fundamentalists. The Buinaksk bombing and the new Chechen incursion appear to be in support of the Wahabbite rebellion.

Caucasus experts fear a major war on the border of the Christian and Muslim worlds might be starting. Russia refuses to grant formal independence to Chechnya lest it set a precedent that could lead to the federation crumbling the way the Soviet empire fell to pieces.