During the past 16 years of battling militants in the North Caucasus, Russia’s security services and police have generally avoided taking prisoners among the insurgents. This tendency was recently displayed once again in an operation conducted in Makhachkala.
According to the official version of events, on March 21, police sealed off an apartment block in the Dagestani capital in which a group of militants were holed up. “A five-story residential building was surrounded by federal forces because bandits may have been hiding in it,” officials reported. “During a police operation to verify the identities of residents of the apartments, police were attacked and one officer was injured” (Newsru.com, March 21).
It would have sounded plausible, but the timing of the document check was strange: the police apparently started checking IDs at 7 a.m, before the shooting started. If, however, the authorities knew militants were hiding in the apartment block, it is unclear why police, as opposed to the special services, were sent in to check the IDs of the residents (Vdagestan.com, March 21).
Four and a half hours after the start of the special operation, the police called on the militants and the members of their families to surrender, including a child and a woman. “To avoid the threat to their lives and wellbeing, the police decided to start negotiations and convince the criminals to surrender,” local media reported. “As a result, they let a child leave, whose is now out of danger. However, the police failed to persuade the woman to leave the surrounded apartment” (Riadagestan.ru, March 21).
The female let the child go, but refused to leave her home. Therefore, it was automatically assumed she was a rebel. The authorities did not bother with alternative explanations: for example, that she may have been scared of her husband or feared for her life. While officials initially said that that one rebel and his wife had been killed, by 2:30 p.m., it became known that as many six suspects were dead (Echo.msk.ru, March 21). At 3 p.m, a representative of the counter-terrorism operation said the slain militants were members of the so-called Makhachkala militant group (the militants call this group the Shamilkala Sector of the Velayat Dagestan of the Caucasus Emirate) who had been involved in several brazen terrorist attacks, including attacks on law enforcement agents, and extorting large sums of money from the business community (Riadagestan.ru, March 21). The security services knew from the start of the special operation who they were looking for. At the end of the operation, authorities announced at 5 p.m. that seven people had been killed (Gazeta.ru, March 21).
The results of such a special operation would have been regarded as disastrous in any other country, since seven “rebels” were killed, including four men and three women, and a serviceman was injured. The three women were automatically listed as members of the armed resistance groups. The official information about the locations of the slain militants was puzzling because they were found in two different apartments. The bodies of one female and one male were found in one of the apartments, and bodies of three males and two females were found in another apartment. Moreover, the police said that arms and ammunition were found in only one of the apartments (Kavkavsky Uzel, March 21). The question is how the authorities knew that the slain man and woman were militants if they had no arms or ammunition in their apartment. It seems that the government forces killed people who had nothing to do with the militants and had decided to stay in their apartment because they did not have time to leave before the police sealed off the area.
According to a source in Dagestan’s Ministry of Interior, one of the slain militants was identified as Murad Musaev (a. k. a. amir Al-Bara). Musaev was suspected of shooting at an officer of the Dagestani interior ministry’s Center for Combatting Extremism, on March 19. Rustam Mugutdinov was identified as the owner of the apartment in which the rebels gathered. A 24-year-old man identified as Islam Magomedov was reportedly the amir of the Shamilkala Sector. The names of the slain women were given as Makka and Aziza. According to the rebels’ website, the latter was pregnant.
All residents of the apartment block sealed off by the security forces were detained and released late in the evening of March 21. This means that the police may have not found the people they were looking for. The detained individuals were only let go ten hours after the start of the special operation, after being thoroughly questioned. They must have been warned by the police not to speak about it, so only an anonymous resident of the apartment block reported this information (Kavkavsky Uzel, March 21). Curiously, even knowing the names of the people killed in the apartment, neither the authorities nor the rebels could identify the couple that was killed in the neighboring apartment. The killing of a man and a woman in an apartment in which no arms or ammunition was found gives credence to the explanation that they were innocent civilians that just happened to be neighbors of Rustam Mugutdinov. Undoubtedly, the slain couple will also be labeled as “rebels,” and the authorities will fail to admit their error or compensate the victims’ relatives.
The members of the armed resistance killed in the March 21 incident were fairly young people, aged 23 to 29 years old. The young militants of the new generation apparently do not leave for the forests and mountains, but stay in the cities and organize their groups there. The authorities and government forces do not bother to preserve lives during special operations, leading to an increasing flow of young people to the rebels and a rise of popular discontent with the policies of the government, since any person accidentally killed is automatically labeled a “militant.” This makes the situation in this North Caucasian republic even tenser than it already was.