Stavropol Krai, a predominantly ethnic-Russian region in the North Caucasus, is the frontier zone that separates the volatile Caucasian republics from the rest of Russia. Now Stavropol has become the scene of a fierce battle between Russian troops and insurgents.
On February 9, a police special-task unit from Stavropol came to the village of Tukui-Mektebe, near the border with Dagestan. Different media sources have reported different reasons for the raid. According to the Internet news site Kavkazky uzel, the policemen came to the village to search for a secret arms cache belonging to the rebels, while Vremya novostei reported that the police had information that a group of militants had been hiding in Tukui Mektebe (Kavkazky uzel, February 10; Vremya novostei, February 13). Whatever the real cause, the police squad met with strong resistance as soon as its members entered the village. The officers found themselves caught in the crossfire from the rebels, who were shooting from three houses located on one street. Two officers were killed during the first minutes of the fighting (gazeta.ru, February 10).
The shoot-out lasted the whole day. By nightfall units of the 101st brigade of the Interior forces had surrounded the village, and all of the streets in Tukui-Mektebe were blocked with police cars and armored-personnel carriers. The special task officers failed to eradicate the militants that night, so the fighting continued into the early hours of February 10.
Authorities then decided to call in Russian troops from Chechnya for help. Tanks and helicopters were sent to the village from Khankala, the main Russian military base in Chechnya (gazeta.ru, February 10). Covered by gun ships, tanks smashed the houses that were occupied by the rebels. The Press Service of the Federal Security Service (FSB) in Stavropol Krai reported that two gunmen were killed when two houses were destroyed (Interfax, February 10). Then the police and army troops attacked the third house, where between four and six insurgents were hiding. The operation was over by late afternoon.
The outcome of the Tukui-Mektebe battle remains unclear. During the whole second day of the incident, security officials chaotically reported casualties on both sides, and the figures changed almost every minute. The final toll was announced as seven policemen killed and 11 wounded. The rebels lost 12 men, but some of them (perhaps four) managed to break through the siege and escaped. One day later, the number of casualties among the militants was decreased to eight, while only six dead bodies were identified. The oldest insurgent was a 55-year-old man and the youngest a 16-year-old teenager (Vremya novostei, February 14). At least one civilian, a woman, was injured in the fighting, and many houses in the village were destroyed.
Most of the residents of Tukui-Mektebe are Nogai, an ethnic group based in the south of Russia and renown for their long history of strong resistance to Russian colonization. Over the years the Nogai population has declined due to its anti-Russian resistance. In the 18th century, Alexander Suvorov, the famous Russian military commander, reported to Empress Catherine the Great that “the Nogai problem has been successfully solved.”
In the Soviet era, the remains of the once-large ethnic group settled in three regions, including Chechnya, Dagestan, and Stavropol Krai. In Stavropol, Nogai villagers concentrated in the Neftekumsk District close to Dagestan.
In the middle of the 1990s, when Russian troops entered Chechnya to prevent that republic’s secession, many Nogai revived their resistance traditions and went to Chechnya to fight against the Russian army. They set up a special squad known as the “Nogai Battalion.” Different sources estimated the battalion to have from 300 to 700 fighters.
Several years ago the Nogai militants reminded the authorities of their existence. In August 2003, Nogai fighters attacked a police station in the village of Kayasula, Stavropol Krai. On July 30, 2004, three Nogai gunmen were surrounded and killed in an apartment in the Dagestani town of Kizlyar. Last year, on August 22, the rebels injured an officer from the local police organized crime department in Stavropol Krai. On August 24, two Nogai rebels and one officer from a police special-task unit died in a shoot-out in the village of Yamangoi in the Neftekumsk District of the Stavropol Krai.
Following the battle in Tukui-Mektebe, security officials conducted several raids to search for the rebels in different towns of Stavropol region. Officials reported arrests of suspected insurgents in Stavropol, Gorachevodsk, and Patygorsk (Interfax, February 10). Mopping-up operations also took place in Nogai villages of the Neftekumsk District.
The increasing activity of the Nogai rebels in Stavropol Krai shows once again the recent changes in the Caucasian war. Unlike the past, when all Caucasian rebels concentrated in Chechnya, they are now spreading across the North Caucasus, bringing war to their homelands.