By Andrei Smirnov, Chechnya Weekly, Jamestown Foundation
Russian security forces continue to comb the mountain areas of Dagestan looking for insurgent groups. Russian security officials believe that the severe cold in the mountains, which is in the minus 15-20 degrees Celsius—unusual for the North Caucasus—and heavy snowfall would make it impossible for the Dagestani guerrillas to survive if they could be isolated from mountain villages and if their dug-outs and bases in the forests were destroyed. On December 15, Russian police and Interior forces sealed off the village of Gimry in the mountainous Untsukulsky district, and as of today the village is still almost completely isolated from the outside world. An independent Dagestani journalist, Abdurashid Saidov, told Jamestown that a source in Gimry had informed him about the current situation in the settlement. According to Saidov's sources, police forces started the sweep in the village by dividing Gimry into several sectors. The locals were allowed to move only inside the sector they lived in and a nighttime curfew was imposed. Policemen, mostly of the Russian origin, conducted house-to-house searches, sometimes inspecting the same house several times. The officials announced that a dug-out full of weapons had been found in a house during these searchers and that some rifles, including a Kalashnikov, had been discovered along with ammunition in some of the other houses. According to officials, 59 residents of Gimry were arrested as terrorist suspects (RIA Novosti-Dagestan, December 24, 2007).
At the same time, the residents complained about police behavior, claiming that the security sources had engaged in looting and carried out illegal arrests. Kavkazky Uzel reported on December 20 that people in Gimry said the policemen deliberately planted weapons during the searches in order to create a pretext for the detention of one man. According to Abdurashid Saidov’s sources, the main problem for the locals now is their isolation from the outside world and inability to buy food. Saidov said that the residents of Gimry used to go to the city of Buinaksk in the neighboring Buinaksk district to sell the fruit they grow and to buy what they needed. Now, a Gimry resident can leave the village only if he or she is on a list, and his or her name can be struck off the list any time without any explanation from the police. Moreover, policemen and the military confiscated wooden cases with persimmon that the locals had prepared for sale, which is the main source of income for the villagers.
Security officials told the residents that the troops would stay in Gimry until “the situation is normalized.” It is unclear what they meant by that, especially considering the fact that a group of rebels that had a base near Gimry had successfully broken through the siege as far back as on December 20. While most of the Russian forces (about 1,000 troops) were concentrated in Gimry and terrorizing the local civilians, mountain routes nearby were blocked by small squads of Dagestani policemen from the Gumbet and Kazbek districts—two Dagestani districts adjacent to the Untsukulsky district. The rebels attacked a police post in the mountains, killing two police officers and wounding three, and left the sealed area under the cover of darkness (Kavkazky Uzel, December 21, 2007).
Unable to confront experienced and diehard insurgents, the police forces are trying to deprive them of the population's support in the Dagestani mountain areas. Gimry village was sealed off precisely for this purpose.
On December 28, Dagestan’s president, Mukhu Aliev, met with elders in Makhachkala, the regional capital. During the meeting, Aliev openly threatened residents of Untsukulsky district. Addressing the residents of Gimry, the republic's president said “for a long time the residents of Gimry did not behave properly.” He added: “I warned you many times that this day (the security sweep) would come to you sooner or later.” Aliev also warned the residents of Balakhoni, another Untsukulsky district village, saying, “we will surround your village and won’t let you rest” if the locals continue to help the guerrillas. Aliev also promised during the meeting “to make mincemeat of Balakhoni village” and said that the police forces would not leave Gimry anytime soon (RIA-Novosti-Dagestan, December 28, 2007).
Despite Mukhu Aliev’s tough rhetoric and the harshness of the mopping-up operation in Gimry, the recent events in Tabasaransky district, another mountainous district of Dagestan, demonstrate how difficult it is for the Russian forces to hunt the rebels in the mountains. On January 8, combined forces of the Russian army, police, Interior Ministry and Federal Security Service (FSB) Special Forces tried to surround a rebel squad in the Tabasaransky district village of Tsanak. According to official reports, the operation started at 5:00 a.m. and it was only at 9:00 a.m. that the first clash between the police and the rebels took place. This means that it took four hours for the security forces to locate the whereabouts of militants in a village with a population of less than a hundred villagers. Furthermore, the rebels attacked first and after several hours of fierce fighting managed to escape, retreating under heavy fire from helicopters, tanks and heavy machine guns (Kavkazky Uzel, January 9).
The security officials explained their problems by pointing to the difficult mountain terrain, snow and cold temperatures, but it should be noted that the militants face the same natural obstacles. There is a special mountain brigade in Dagestan - President Vladimir Putin’s favorite unit—but it is apparently unable to deal with such “problems” as mountain woods.
The hunt for the rebels is now under way in Dagestan, but its outcome may be different from what the authorities expect. Instead of eliminating the rebels, who find ways to escape every time they are surrounded the security forces, the sweeps will likely create more militant recruits from the villages that are now being swept or will be swept later this winter.