Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 7 Issue: 1

At daybreak on January 5 federal forces began a third day of attacks on what was thought to be a group of eight militants blockaded in a wooded gorge located near the villages of Gimry and Shamilkala in Dagestan’s Untsukulsky district, newsru.com reported. Dagestani Interior Minister Adilgerei Magomedtagirov told journalists at the scene that special forces of the Russian army’s Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) and marines had been added to the main attacking force. According to Dagestani Interior Ministry sources, that main force was comprised of units from Dagestan’s Interior Ministry, from the 102nd Brigade of the federal Interior Ministry’s Interior Troops and from the federal Defense Ministry’s 136th Brigade. Magomedtagirov said the rebels’ position was also being “worked on” by aviation and artillery, while a Dagestani Interior Ministry source told Interfax that the federal forces had attacked the gorge with helicopter gunships and mortars, and later fired on it with howitzers.

Newsru.com quoted the head of the Dagestani Interior Ministry’s press service, Col. Abdulmanap Musaev, as saying that five rebels had been killed during the first two days of the operation, with three remaining hidden in the wooded area. The separatist Kavkazcenter website, however, claimed on January 4 that some 30 militants were involved in the fighting. According to the federal side, one serviceman had been killed and ten wounded, some of them seriously, as of January 4. Citing “unofficial information,” Kavkazky Uzel reported on January 4 that another two servicemen had disappeared during the fighting. Itar-Tass on January 3 quoted an unnamed law enforcement source as saying that the rebels were blockaded in “a well-equipped and protected dugout” on a mountainside near the village of Gimry. The news agency reported that the area was “repeatedly shelled with rockets from the air” and occasionally fired on with army mortars, but that the special operations forces involved in the attack on the rebels had encountered “fierce resistance.” Dagestani Interior Minister Magomedtagirov told journalists that the rebels were “well-armed” with assault rifles, machineguns and various kinds of grenade launchers. Likewise, NTV television reported on January 4 that federal forces had carried out helicopter missile strikes on the rebel positions and fired on them from mortars “all day” on January 3, but that “the moment the special forces approached the dugout, they came under fierce fire.”

The militants involved in the Untsukulsky district fighting are thought to be remnants of the force led by Rasul Makasharipov, the head of the Sharia Jamaat group who was killed in the Dagestani capital of Makhachkala in June 2005 (Chechnya Weekly, July 7, 2005). Magomedtagirov said the group is currently led by Omar Sheikhulaev, a wanted militant who, according to gazeta.ru, was Makasharipov’s “main associate” and is believed to have masterminded the upswing in insurgent attacks in Dagestan that followed Makasharipov’s death. His group reportedly murdered the head of the Untsukulsky police, Major Gadzimurad Azizov, and a police lieutenant, Saidbeg Abdulkhalikov, last fall (Chechnya Weekly, October 13, 2005). Magomedtagirov said he did not rule out that Sheikhulaev’s group was behind a failed attack that took place in central Makhachkala on December 29, when a suicide bomber—who, according to witnesses, appeared to be heading for a house in which people had gathered to mourn the murder of the son and driver of Deputy Dagestani Interior Minister Magomed Gazimagomedov—apparently blew himself up prematurely. The blast injured two passers-by. Agenstvo Natsionalnykh Novostei on January 3 identified the suicide bomber as Dzhamaluddin Ibragimov, a Gimri resident born in 1983. Magomed Gazimagomedov’s son, a Federal Security Service (FSB) officer, and driver were killed on December 27 when gunmen opened fire on the car in which they were driving, which was normally used by the deputy Interior Minister, the Associated Press reported on December 29.

Kavkazky Uzel reported on January 4 that three women who were taken hostage during the September 2004 seizure of Beslan’s School No. 1 had identified Omar Sheikhulaev from photographs as having been among their captors. According to the website, another former Beslan hostage, Larisa Mamitova, a doctor who had treated hostages and wounded attackers in Beslan and played the role of envoy ferrying messages between the hostage-takers and officials at the scene, said she recognized Sheikhulaev as having been among the hostage-takers. “Yes, he was there, I remember him well; he kept silent at all times,” the website quoted Mamitova as having said upon seeing Sheikhulaev’s picture. As Kavazky Uzel noted, Sheikhulaev’s involvement in the current battle in Dagestan’s Untsukulsky district would seem to contradict the federal authorities’ insistence that none of the Beslan hostage-takers escaped the security cordon around the school.