As in August 1999, Islamic separatist extremism seemed again to be spreading from Chechnya into neighboring Dagestan this week. On June 18, a radio-controlled bomb filled with nails and screws went off in the Dagestani capital, Makhachkala, as a truck transporting Interior Ministry troops was passing by. The bomb killed seven servicemen. A group called the “Unified Command of Mujahideen of Dagestan,” claimed that “fighters of the Djaamat”–Islamic fundamentalist guerrillas–had carried out the bombing and that thirteen Russian soldiers, not seven, had died in the attack.

But while several top Dagestani officials said they believed that Islamic extremists, who represent 6-7 percent of the republic’s population and are concentrated along the Chechen border, had carried out the attack, the authorities opted for rounding up the usual suspects–or, at least, one of them. Nadirshakh Khachilaev–the leader of Dagestan’s Laks minority group and a former State Duma deputy who once headed the Union of Muslims of Russia, who has also been described as one of Dagestan’s most powerful mafia bosses–was detained on suspicion of involvement in the blast. While Khachilaev was allegedly caught with Islamic extremist literature, the suspect himself denied any connection with the bombing and denounced his arrest as a provocation. Even the hardcore Dagestani Islamists said Khachilaev’s arrest was probably just an attempt to sideline him politically.

Several days later, Akhmed Aliev, the first deputy head of Makhachkala’s administration, was murdered along with his wife. No motive for the double homicide was immediately established, and observers were split over whether it was a political or simply a “business” killing–a distinction that, in many parts of Russia and particularly the North Caucasus, is murky at best.

Whatever the case, none of these incidents did much to ameliorate Dagestan’s image, particularly in view of the fact that they were only the latest in a series of assassination attempts, both successful and unsuccessful. Last November, unidentified assailants fired twice from a grenade launcher at the car of Makhachkala Mayor Said Amirov as he drove through the capital in a convoy. Thanks to the vehicle’s high speed, the grenades missed. It was, according to some tallies, the fourteenth attempt on Amirov’s life, one attack having left him an invalid. Just a few days earlier, the deputy head of Dagestan’s People’s Assembly and one of the republic’s leading bankers had been killed in a double drive-by shooting.