Russian Troops Attack Rebels
MAKHACHKALA, Russia (AP) _ Russian aircraft and artillery pounded a mountainous stronghold held by Islamic militants for a third straight day today in a battle for control over a volatile southern region.
More than 80 combatants have been killed since Sunday, with the militants suffering the vast majority of the casualties, Russian officials said.
The attack on several remote villages in Dagestan follows two weeks of intense fighting in another part of the impoverished republic earlier in August.
Government forces are again using helicopter gunships and heavy artillery in an attempt to crush the rebels who have imposed strict Islamic law in several small villages they control.
The villages have a total population of about 10,000, but most civilians fled Saturday when authorities ordered residents to hand over their weapons. Some 8,000 people have become refugees, Russian Interior Ministry officials said.
Russian troops moved into the villages Sunday and Monday, while the rebels took cover in surrounding hills.
Russian forces began using new Grad and Uragan rockets against the militants today, the Interior Ministry said, adding that the rebels appeared well-prepared for fighting and difficult to uproot. Seven Russian servicemen have been killed and 31 wounded, according to Dagestan’s Deputy Military Prosecutor Zaur Akhmedov and other military officials.
The region under attack, Karamakhi, is about 50 miles east of where Russian troops battled insurgents earlier in August. In that battle, the militants came from the breakaway republic of Chechnya in a bid to establish an Islamic state in Dagestan.
The Karamakhi region was not involved in that round of fighting. But it is considered the heart of Islamic fundamentalism in Dagestan.
Supporters of militant leader Bagaudin Magomedov evicted police and administrators from Karamakhi and surrounding villages, the area about 25 miles south of Dagestan’s capital Makhachkala.
When Magomedov and his followers began imposing Islamic law, and Dagestan’s secular authorities pleaded to Moscow for help.
Residents have been forbidden to listen to music or view pictures of living things. Cameras are forbidden. All women are required to wear Islamic dress, covering their faces, arms and legs. Children are barred from having toy animals or dolls, considered pagan objects by local religious leaders.