The commander of the Russian interior ministry’s internal troops, General Nikolai Rogozhkin, told journalists today (March 26) that up to 500 militants are currently operating in the North Caucasus, most of them aged 25 to 28. However, Rogozhkin added that it is impossible to say exactly how many rebels are active in the region. The general said that the arrival of spring and warm weather meant that the internal troops in the North Caucasus are stepping up their vigilance and combat readiness, but that he believes there will be no “large-scale” attacks since the rebels themselves fully understand they do not have the power to change the situation to their benefit. He added, however, that “money, dollars” are probably reaching the rebels in the woods and that they are receiving aid from “outside forces” (www.newsru.com, March 26).
Meanwhile, the Kavkazsky Uzel website yesterday (March 25) quoted law-enforcement sources in Kabardino-Balkaria as saying that the death of the rebel leader in the republic, Anzor Astemirov (aka Seifullah), had been confirmed through fingerprints (www.kakvaz-uzel.ru, March 25). Kavkaz Center, the website that serves as a mouthpiece for the Caucasus Emirate, the Islamist wing of the insurgency in the Caucasus, posted an item yesterday confirming that Astemirov had been killed. The announcement by the “headquarters of the armed forces of the United Vilayat of Kabarda, Balkaria and Karachai” said Astemirov, their “emir,” or commander, had been “killed in the course of a battle in Nalchik,” Kabardino-Balkaria’s capital, and “become a shaheed [martyr], Insha’Allah” (www.kavkazcenter.com, March 25).
Russian authorities accused Astemirov of being one of the masterminds behind the December 2004 attack on a Federal Drug Control Service (FSKN) office in Nalchik in which four FSKN officers were killed and a large quantity of weapons captured, and the rebel raid on Nalchik in October 2005 that left dozens of policemen and as many as 94 militants dead (Moscow Times, March 26). Rebel leader Doku Umarov named Astemirov head of the Caucasus Emirate’s Sharia Court in September 2007.
According to Russian press reports, Astemirov was killed in Nalchik on the evening of March 24, when police stopped a “suspicious man” and asked him for his documents. The suspect turned out to be the rebel leader, who opened fire on the officers and was killed in the ensuing shootout. The press service for the anti-extremism center of the interior ministry for the Southern Federal District was later quoted as saying that another insurgent was with Astemirov at the time of the gun battle and was wounded but managed to escape. A Federal Security Service (FSB) officer was also reportedly wounded in the shootout (www.kakvaz-uzel.ru, www.newru.com, March 25).
The killing of Astemirov was just the latest in a series of reported killings of insurgent leaders and commanders in the North Caucasus in recent days. The emir of rebel forces in Grozny, Salmbek Akhmadov, was reportedly killed on March 22 during a special operation in Makhachkala, Dagestan (ITAR-TASS, March 22). Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov said on March 18 that one of six suspected militants killed in a special operation in the village of Khazhi-Yurt in Chechnya’s Vedeno district was the Arab militant named Abu Khaled, who was in charge of providing security for Doku Umarov (EDM, March 19).
The killings, however, appear not to have impeded the rebels’ ability to mount attacks in the North Caucasus. Three policemen were reportedly injured today (March 26) when an explosive device detonated in Chechnya’s Vedeno district (RIA Novosti, March 26). In Makhachkala today (March 26), an improvised explosive device detonated as a motorcade that included the car of the head of the regional branch of Rosselkhozbank, Gitinamagomed Gadzhimagomedov, was passing. No one was hurt in the attack. On March 25, a police captain, was shot and severely wounded in the Dagestani city of Kaspiisk (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, www.newsru.com, March 26).
On March 23, a large explosive device was discovered and defused in the Dagestani city of Khasavyurt. The device, which was made using a plastic canister filled with ammonium nitrate, aluminum powder and metal construction dowels, would have exploded with the force of 10 kilograms of TNT. A similar explosive device was found and defused near a railroad track in the village of Mutsalaul in Dagestan’s Khasavyurt district on March 21. On March 22, in Khasavyurt, a roadside bomb detonated as a car in which three members of the security service for the Chernomortransneft oil company was passing. No one was hurt in the blast.
In Ingushetia, on March 25 unidentified attackers driving in a VAZ-2107 car fired on the home of the head of the republic’s Nazran district, Bagaudin Mutsolgov, and the home of his brother. No one was hurt in the attacks (www.newsru.com, March 26). On March 23, three militants who were allegedly planning to carry out a series of attacks on officials and law-enforcement personnel in Ingushetia’s Sunzha and Nazran districts were killed in a special operation in the village of Surkhakhi (ITAR-TASS, March 24).
Rebel leader Doku Umarov warned Russian authorities in a statement posted by rebel websites earlier this month that his fighters plan to “liberate” not only the Caucasus from Russian control, but also Krasnodar Krai, Astrakhan and the Volga region (www.kavkazcenter.com, March 8).