The North Caucasus is poised for a possible rebel offensive. Police and army troops in North Ossetia and Ingushetia have been on high alert since April (see EDM, April 20). Tensions grew even higher after the homes of several ethnic Russians were attacked in Ingushetia on April 28, and when a statement by North Ossetian rebels and an interview with the Ingush rebel commander were published by Kavkaz Center, an Internet news service. The statement from Ossetian Jamaat, the North Ossetian anti-Russian Islamic rebel group, warned that they would target gambling clubs in the republic, as well as military and police facilities, and that their attacks would increase. The statement also said that since the group consists of Ingush as well as Ossetian fighters, it would start operations in neighboring Ingushetia. “With the mercy of Allah we are setting up already two operative bases and several small caches of ammunition on Ingush territory, analytical and operative work is under way” (Kavkaz Center, April 22).
On May 2, Kavkaz Center posted an interview with Amir Khabibula, commander of the Ingush rebels, who said, “We conduct operations in Ingushetia as well as in neighboring regions, train recruits, and spread our force.”
Russian authorities responded to these threats by bombing mountainous areas of Ingushetia. On May 1, Regnum news agency reported two air strikes that targeted the outskirts of the Ingush Ali-Urt village near the Ossetian border. Ingushetiya.ru also reported bombardments of forests near Surkhakhi, a settlement not far from North Ossetia, and of Sunzha District, which is adjacent to Chechnya (Ingushetiya.ru, May 3).
At the same time, security officials in North Ossetia are preparing to fight the insurgents on their own territory. The Ministry of Interior Affairs of North Ossetia issued its own statement, reading, “There is a real danger of acts of terror and sabotage. There is information that something is being planned in Ingushetia. If this information is just a red herring, as is usually the case, security measures are also being tightened in North Ossetia” (Kavkazky uzel, May 5). But while all attention is focused on regions west of Chechnya, the probability of a major rebel attack is growing day by day in Dagestan.
The strategic Buinaksk District, situated in the middle of the republic, recently saw intense gun battles between the rebels and Russian troops. On April 17, a patrol of federal forces was ambushed near the city of Buinaksk. The battle lasted two days and the Russian troops used mortars and helicopters, but most of the rebels disappeared in the deep mountain forests of Buinaksk District. Both sides sustained casualties. On May 6, troops ran into a squad of rebels while combing an area near Nizhnie Kazanishe, a village just two miles south of Buinaksk. The Russian forces dispatched seasoned Special Forces from the 46th brigade of the Interior troops located in Chechnya to the district (Lenta.ru, May 6). Nevertheless, this time the rebels again managed to escape. The authorities reported one dead and two wounded soldiers, while the rebels claimed that the Russian troops and local police forces lost 13 men and had many more injured (Kavkaz Center, May 8).
There is no doubt that the insurgency has concentrated large forces in the Buinaksk District, but the rebel squads only act if Russian troops discover their location. The same situation can be seen in other parts of Dagestan. On May 4, in the city of Khasavyurt, security officials received information that a group of armed men had been spotted in the city. The troops cordoned off the neighborhood but found no one (Interfax, May 4). On the same day Kavkaz Center reported that militants had entered Khasavyurt the previous night to conduct a major operation, but the attack was cancelled. In Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan, traffic police had two clashes with rebels when they tried to check their cars; each time the militants managed to escape (Interfax, March 29, April 20). The rebels eluded capture when police special-task units surrounded a house in Makhachkala on April 10 (Kavkazky uzel, April 10).
While at one time insurgents initiated most attacks in the republic, now the situation is different. This year the rebels have usually tried to avoid clashes and attacked only to defend themselves or their bases. This change of tactics makes the authorities nervous.
“The fact that the incidence of terrorist attacks has somewhat decreased compared to last year and that a whole group of activists of illegal formations have been killed is cold comfort to all of us,” Dagestan President Mukhu Aliev noted during a meeting of the regional Anti-Terrorist Commission (Respublica Dagestan, April 20). Just a month ago Aliev told the local parliament, “A far-flung terrorist underground continues to function in the republic involving over a thousand people, according to law-enforcement bodies. In all probability, this figure is much higher, and by all accounts, it is extending its social base all the time” (RIA Dagestan, March 30).
Aliev has reason to worry. Thousands of rebels operate in the region, but they are lying low and nobody knows where they are now. There is only one likely explanation for the relative calm, and the Russian authorities know it very well: the rebels in Dagestan are quiet because they are preparing something big. But what and when remain unanswered questions.