“Four servicemen were killed and four injured when a convoy of vehicles hit a mine,” the Russian state agency RIA-Novosti reported on September 6. Such news would not be a surprise coming out of Chechnya, but this incident happened in North Ossetia, a North Caucasus region where the Russian military had felt relatively safe, at least before this attack. The servicemen were from the Interior Ministry’s Internal Troops (49th Separate Operations Brigade) and they were traveling in a convoy of armored personnel vehicles. The explosion took place near the village of Mayskoe, an ethnic Ingush settlement on Ossetian territory.
Mayskoe is a reputed rebel stronghold in North Ossetia. The settlement is populated by Ingush refugees who were forced to leave Ossetia for neighboring Ingushetia in 1992 due to an ethnic conflict between the Ingush and the Ossetians. When they returned they established themselves in the only settlement where the Ossetian authorities had permitted them to live, Mayskoe village. Full of refugees and lacking government control, Mayskoe became a haven for Caucasian insurgents of Ingush origin. Ingush policemen have attempted to control the area but failed completely. On August 2, a bomb killed Amirkhan Avsagev, the acting head of the Crime Investigation Department in the Ingush Interior Ministry, as he drove to Mayskoe to personally investigate the situation there.
The bombing of the military convoy in North Ossetia could open a new phase in the standoff between the Russian army and the local insurgency in the North Caucasus. The Russian military and police forces in Chechnya cannot function properly without a land connection to its main bases, located in North Ossetia. The link is primarily through the Transcaucasus Highway, which spans the Ossetian and Ingush territories.
This summer the rebels launched a series of attacks in Ingushetia along the highway as part of a strategy to disrupt the connections among the Russian army groups in Chechnya and North Ossetia. Military jeeps and cars came under attack along the Ingush part of the Transcaucasus Highway last August. On July 28, the rebels killed a colonel and two officers who were accompanying him by showering his car with bullets. On August 3, a jeep carrying police officers from a special-task unit was ambushed in the highway. On August 16, there was an ambush on another jeep with communications personnel from the 58th Army, which is headquartered in North Ossetia. On August 28, the rebels attacked a jeep occupied by the head of the Food Department of the 503rd regiment, a unit of the 58th Army in Ingushetia. The major survived, despite the fact that the gunmen had fired at his car ten times (RIA-Novosti, August 28).
The rebels used the same tactics in all these incidents. They usually shadow a military-looking vehicle, waiting for the best opportunity to attack. When the time comes, the militants drive nearer to the military vehicle, quickly fire a burst of shots, and then drive away, leaving their targets dead or wounded.
Simultaneously, the rebels have tried to disrupt military communications among Chechnya, Ingushetia, and Ossetia along Transcaucasus Highway and in other locations. Mozdok, a Russian military base in the northern part of North Ossetia, is no less important to the army group in Chechnya than their base in Vladikavkaz, the North Ossetian capital. This summer the rebels made their first real attempt to break the communications between Mozdok and Chechnya. On August 26, the rebels used a heavy machine gun to attack an armored jeep containing a military group that was driving to Chechnya from Mozdok. The ambush took place in a wooded area near Voznesenskaya village in northern Ingushetia.
These efforts reflect a desire by insurgents to isolate Russian military forces based in Chechnya by damaging communication links with bases in North Ossetia and has forced the Russian authorities to respond somehow. During a meeting of security officials that took place on August 28 in Rostov-on-Don, the headquarters of the Russian Southern Federal District, Federal Security Service Director Nikolai Patrushev said that security in North Ossetia and Ingushetia is the main concern of Russian law-enforcement bodies (Interfax, August 28).
After the ambush near Voznesenskaya Russian army units intensified their search operations in northern and in southern Ingushetia. Beslan Khamkhoev, the Ingush interior minister, issued an order to mobilize all male Ingush policemen, 400 officers in total, to set up mobile posts along the Transcaucasus Highway to check all cars traveling on the road (Regnum, August 29). They subsequently killed two gunmen who were driving a car on August 29 and another two on August 31.
Such measures temporarily stopped rebel attacks on vehicles in Ingushetia, but the September 6 bombing of the APC in North Ossetia indicates that the insurgency has merely shifted tactics. The rebel attacks have simply moved from Ingushetia to North Ossetia, the Russian stronghold in the North Caucasus.