VLADIKAVKAZ, Russia -- For more than a decade, Russia concentrated its security firepower in Chechnya, and it still has more than 80,000 soldiers and 12,000 police officers there trying to root out bands of Islamic separatists.
But the search for militants has expanded all across Russian territories in the North Caucasus Mountains. Hardly a week goes by without news of security sweeps, detentions, skirmishes and killings of reputed militants in the region's villages and towns.
Shocked by an attack last June on police posts in Ingushetia, which borders Chechnya, and the bloody school seizure in Beslan in September, Russian security forces have intensified the hunt not just for rebel leaders but for rank-and-file militants.
At least 28 suspected militants were killed in eight special operations outside Chechnya during the first four months of this year alone.
"It's part of one and the same anti-terrorist campaign," said Alexander Cherkasov of the human rights group Memorial. "It's the result of these five years, when everything was limited to Chechnya. We haven't managed to keep the terrorists inside there, and now it's happening all over."
Extremism is spreading despite harsh anti-terrorist methods, from targeted killings of rebel leaders such as Aslan Maskhadov, to the payment of rewards for information, to the demolition of houses where suspected rebels have found refuge.
In one case, security forces used a tank to knock down a house in Makhachkala, capital of Dagestan, after hundreds of soldiers in smaller armored vehicles and a helicopter gunship failed to root out five gunmen holed up inside.
"We think such measures cannot be considered excessive if, first of all, they solve the task of putting down terrorists and -- the main thing -- minimizing losses among law enforcement.
"Until recently, we were losing several colleagues in the course of liquidating just one terrorist. We can't allow this," said Vladimir Vasilyev, a former Interior Ministry officer who heads the Russian parliament's security committee.
Nikolai Shepel, Russia's deputy prosecutor general responsible for the North Caucasus, said radical Muslim groups scattered through the region are small -- typically with no more than 15 to 20 members each. But he said they are all working with a single aim.
'Creating a caliphate'
"It's terror with the specific goal of splitting off the North Caucasus in order to create an Islamic caliphate," he said in an interview with the Associated Press in the regional prosecutor's office at Vladikavkaz, capital of North Ossetia.
Mr. Shepel said the groups also have links to international terrorist networks.
An assistant clicked on a captured video showing Maskhadov in a forest with Arab mercenaries -- showing what prosecutors say is an indisputable link between the late Chechen leader and international terrorism.
"We think it is a network of groups in the North Caucasus that act in a conspiratorial way, and the film confirms that they were led by" Maskhadov, Mr. Shepel said.
Such videos, produced by the militants with Arabic soundtracks to try to attract financing for the Chechen rebel cause, are not hard to come by. Even in the Chechen capital, Grozny, which is patrolled heavily by Russian troops, the videos can be found in just about any outdoor market.
Video from hide-out
But Mr. Shepel said this particular video came from the basement hide-out of Abu Dzeit, an Arab and reputed al Qaeda liaison who was killed by security forces in February, three weeks before Maskhadov was slain in a similar raid.
The prosecutor plunked a plastic bag full of inch-long metal chunks on the desk, and said they also had been found in homemade, plastic-bottle bombs stored in Dzeit's bunker.
The fight against rebels inside Chechnya is increasingly being turned over to local law-enforcement forces which largely recruit former separatist fighters. Critics accuse them of employing the same methods as the rebels, especially abductions, which are said to be also used by federal forces.
Human-rights advocates say abductions simply create a new pool of victims who are ripe for rebel recruitment and that the authorities' reliance on force across the south ignores the roots of rebellion -- persistent poverty and joblessness, government corruption and police brutality.
Advocates fault force
"The federal center needs a new concept of a policy on the North Caucasus," said Alexander Dzadziev, an analyst in Vladikavkaz. "It should set its priority, deciding whether it's more important to fight terrorists or work on social and economic problems, or both simultaneously, if it really doesn't want to lose it."
He said authorities should communicate with nonmainstream Muslim groups and recognize that the region's disaffected youth have found hope in fundamentalist Islam, because Muslim charities give them financial help for food and clothes and for education.
"The government doesn't give them anything," he said.