Russians fire on Islamic rebels

RUSSIA WAS on the brink of serious conflict on its unstable southern flank last night as it launched air strikes to drive out hundreds of Islamic paramilitaries trying to create a fundamentalist state on Russian territory.

Moscow's generals were preparing for a "large-scale" military operation against the guerrillas, who surrounded villages in Dagestan - a republic in the Russian Federation. About 1,000 Dagestani police reportedly were gathering in the north Caucasus republic alongside Russian troops. Several thousand refugees were said to be pouring out of the mountainous conflict zone, which came under missile fire from Russian helicopters on Saturday amid some of the worst fighting since the end of the Chechen war in 1996.

Witnesses told Interfax news agency that the gunmen were Wahhabi militants seeking to establish an independent Islamic republic in union with Chechnya. The paramilitaries - who took local men hostages - were mostly Chechens, led by Shamil Basayev, they said.

Mr Basayev, a feted Chechen commander, is regarded by Moscow as a terrorist. After a four-hour visit to Dagestan, thePrime Minister, Sergei Stepashin, said he was "not afraid" of taking on the guerrillas but ruled out a new war.

The number of Islamic fighters surrounding the villages - Ansalta, Echeda, Miarso and Rokhota - was unclear. Initial estimates put them at 200 although the Russians talked of as many as 2,000. News that their leader is believed to be Mr Basayev horrified Russians. He led a raid into Russia in 1995, taking 1,000 hostages and then, to Russian disgust, negotiated free passage home.

He leads an organisation called the Congress of the Nations of Ichkeria (Chechnya) and Dagestan. Sources within the congress told Interfax that the Islamic fighters in Dagestan were setting up a local government and Sharia courts in the seized areas.

The possibility of a new war is a nightmare for Moscow. Defeat in the 21-month Chechen war taught it the impossibility of controlling a mountainous Muslim region that has never accepted rule by Orthodox Russia.

Yet the latest events place Moscow in a quandary. Dagestan provides access to the Caspian Sea, and is a trans-shipment route for oil. Its loss would be seen in Moscow as evidence that Islam is making dangerous incursions. At present, secession looks improbable. Dagestan, with some 30, often divided, nationalities, is riddled with clan conflict and organised crime. Much more likely is a slide into local civil strife, which Moscow will - with difficulty - try to control.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
voices
News
general electionThis quiz matches undecided voters with the best party for them
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen starred in the big screen adaptation of Austen's novel in 2005
tvStar says studios are forcing actors to get buff for period roles
News
Prince William and his wife Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge show their newly-born daughter, their second child, to the media outside the Lindo Wing at St Mary's Hospital in central London, on 2 May 2015.
news
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey/ South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Recruitment Consultant / Account Manager - Surrey / SW London

£40000 per annum + realistic targets: Ashdown Group: A thriving recruitment co...

Ashdown Group: Part-time Payroll Officer - Yorkshire - Professional Services

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful professional services firm is lo...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before