At the moment, the atmosphere in the North Caucasus can best be described as “the calm before the storm.” As the weather becomes warmer, the population and the authorities are bracing for the renewed attacks that the rebels promised all winter. In February rebel military commander Shamil Basaev released a videotape in which he declared that the insurgents would conduct a “big” operation this year, one that could stop the war in the Caucasus. His appeal was published on the rebel Kavkazcenter website.
Preparations for the summer campaign have begun in the mountains, and federal troops are closely monitoring the situation. “No sooner had the snow melted in the mountains than the bandit formations begin to regroup their forces. The fact that they keep total radio silence is evidence” of their intent, said Oleg Polguev, commander of the 42th Reconnaissance Division (Kavkaz.strana.ru, April 8).
The rebels have also stepped up their guerilla warfare activities. Members of the pro-Russia Chechen government regularly brief the Western media without identifying themselves. The latest bulletin, an April 11-12 report published by the Italian ASCA news agency, says that 12 Russian servicemen and Chechen policemen had been killed or wounded in the previous 24 hours in various parts of Chechnya. The militants lost at least one fighter. “With spring coming, explosions start to increase in number and frequency in Chechnya and Dagestan. This usually happens almost every spring,” Buvadi Dakhiev, chief of staff in the pro-Russia Chechen special task squad (OMON), told Kavkaz.strana.ru.
While there is nothing unusual about stepped up activities in Chechnya, the changes in nearby Dagestan are different. The capital, Makhachkala, has experienced unprecedented levels of rebel attacks in recent weeks. There have been six bombings in the last three weeks, mainly targeting police patrols.
On March 22, the rebels planted and detonated a self-made device in front of a district prosecutor’s office. On March 25, a car bomb injured Akhmed Magomedov, the deputy head of a Makhachkala police district. Three days later, a police patrol car was attacked in the center of the city. Another patrol came under fire on April 4.
During the night of April 7, insurgents tried to pull off bomb attacks at police and military facilities across Dagestan. Two of the four bombs planted in Makhachkala were discovered before they went off, but Islamists managed to detonate the other two. One seriously damaged the headquarters of the 136th Motorized Brigade in Buinaksk. While officials said there were no casualties, the rebels claimed an unspecified number (kavkazcenter.com, April 9).
The Dagestani rebel group Sharia Jamaat announced that these explosions were warnings. “We are appealing to those who still keep their jobs in law-enforcement agencies. Our aim is not your elimination; we want to replace the power of Kufr [unbelievers] in Dagestan with the power of Allah (kavkazcenter.com, April 9).
Sharia Jamaat did more than warn on April 13, when two police cruisers were bombed in Makhachkala. One policeman died, five others were injured (Interfax, April 13).
The authorities are trying hard to frustrate the insurgency’s plans. Traffic police are checking identity papers of vehicle passengers and drivers. In Khasavyurt on April 5, one such traffic stop turned violent, when the passengers began shooting with assault rifles. Both passengers were killed, and the next day the rebels exacted revenge by ambushing the chief of the local police organized crime department. The police officer survived, but was seriously wounded (gazeta.ru, April 6). On April 10, police special forces surrounded a group of three rebels at a construction site. Two were killed, one arrested (regnum, April 10).
The situation is also tense west of Chechnya, in Ingushetia. Last week Federal Security Service (FSB) officials, helped by local policemen, discovered two caches of arms and ammunition in Maglobeksky region. One site had 43 assault rifles and 50,000 bullets (regnum, April 7).
On April 10, the Ingush militants, Ingush Jamaat, released a statement claiming that they would take back their “confiscated property,” hinting at a repeat of the large-scale June 21, 2004, insurgent raid, during which gunmen seized numerous weapons.
After these threats were published on Kavkazcenter.com, Russian army reconnaissance units began to comb the mountains and forests in the south of the republic. Three soldiers were injured by a landmine explosion near the village of Arshty (Interfax, April 11). Ingush and Chechen fighters had prepared for the June 21 attack near this village and may still have a secret base there, surrounded by mines and booby traps (grani.ru, June 22, 2004).
Authorities in Kabardino-Balkaria, yet another North Caucasus republic, are also nervous about possible attacks in the region. Local police have called upon the population to be very cautious about renting apartments, garages, or similar facilities. They have also reminded people that terrorist acts took place in the Dagestan town of Kaspiisk on May 9, 2002, and in Grozny on May 9, 2004. Reportedly, all of the republic’s police units are on alert because of the upcoming May 9 Victory Day celebrations (regnum, April 8).