On July 8, insurgents in the North Caucasus region of Dagestan simultaneously attacked two senior local officials. Early in the morning a roadside bomb killed Bitar Bitarov, prosecutor for the town of Buinaksk, as he was driven to his office. After the blast, Bitarov’s car was also attacked by gunfire, and two of his bodyguards were also injured (Regnum.ru, July 8).
Adilgirei Magomedtagirov, the Dagestani interior minister, immediately rushed to the scene, as is his habit whenever a rebel attack occurs in the region. It usually takes 30 minutes to drive from Makhachkala, the Dagestan capital, to Buinaksk, but since the highway from the capital to Buinaksk is currently under repair, he used the only available route, which goes through Targi village on the outskirts of Makhachkala. When Magomedtagirov’s motorcade approached a bridge near Targi, a massive explosion — the equivalent of 150 kilograms of dynamite — rocked the area. The car carrying the minister managed to avoid the explosion site, but a huge crater created by the blast blocked the road. Two police cars from the minister’s convoy were separated from Magomedtagirov’s car, which continued on toward Buinaksk until it was stopped by two more explosions near the bridge. The motorcade was subsequently ambushed, and two police cars riddled with bullets. According to the Regnum news agency, two members of the special-task police unit escorting the minister were killed by the blast and ambush, and four were wounded.
The motorcade was attacked at 9:20 am local time. At first, Russian NTV reported the event very briefly, but then no information was available for more that an hour. Immediately after the attack on Magomedtagirov, mobile communications and land lines in Dagestan were shut down. It was impossible to reach Dagestan by phone for two hours: from 9:24 am to 11:25 am local time (RIA-Novosti, July 8). During these two hours journalists who somehow managed to connect with the Dagestani Interior Ministry’s press service still could not get any information. Everybody wanted to know if Magomedtagirov was hurt, but it was impossible to find out. Unofficially, police officers were saying that the minister had escaped death thanks to the armored panels of his Mercedes (Newsru.com, July 8). Nevertheless, journalists were not allowed to come to the scene, and a Gazeta.ru correspondent saw a smashed Mercedes that had been towed to Makhachkala from Targi. It was officially announced in the afternoon that Magomedtagirov was not hurt and even was back at work in his office in the Interior Ministry building. However, there were no sightings of him all day. Late in the afternoon it was finally reported that Magomedtagirov was shell-shocked.
Following the attack on the minister’s motorcade, numerous military and police units moved into the area. Supported by APCs and helicopters, the troops started to comb forests in the outskirts of the Dagestani capital. The search operation lasted until dusk, but turned up nothing. The five or six rebels that had targeted Magomedtagirov managed to escape.
Russian security officials were very impressed by the precision timing of the rebel strike. Later reports said that Dagestani rebel leader Rappani Khalilov had coordinated the assault (Kommersant, August 9). Observers and locals generally believe that the attack on the Buinaksk prosecutor was actually a trap to get Magomedtagirov. Following the authorities’ July announcement of an amnesty for those who surrender (see EDM, July 27), the Dagestani rebels announced that they would continue to target police officers in Dagestan, whom they regard as “an obstacle to establishing an independent Islamic state” in the region.
By attacking Magomedtagirov the rebels demonstrated their strength and capacity to target senior officials in Dagestan. Kavkazky Uzel reported that today (August 10), during a special meeting in Makhachkala, Dagestani President Mukhu Aliev decried the violence and ordered law-enforcement bodies to investigate the case as soon as possible. However, at the same time Aliev could not help but mention that the rebel attacks had been perfectly organized. “Look how thoroughly the terrorist act was organized”, Aliev said. “Apparently, the whole staff had been working on it. I believe that they are no less professional than we are. The criminals had stable communications with Makhachkala, they knew exactly when the minister started to drive” (Kavkazky Uzel, August 11).
While a new wave of attacks has just begun in Dagestan, one is already underway in nearby Ingushetia. During the last two weeks there were three attacks on police and military jeeps in the region, and three attacks on military columns using roadside bombs. Last night (August 9) the Ingush rebels attacked the home of District Prosecutor Girkhan Khasbiev. According to Interfax, the rebels detonated two bombs near his house and threw three hand grenades into the yard. The prosecutor’s brother was killed and 13 people were injured, but Khasbiev was not hurt.
The rebels in the North Caucasus continue to operate according to the plan worked out earlier this year by the Chechen warlord Shamil Basaev before his death this summer in Ingushetia. This strategy involves targeting senior officials to weaken pro-Russian authorities in the North Caucasus.