- The Washington Times - Friday, January 21, 2005

A terrorist attack in the province bordering Chechnya and fresh protests by survivors of the Beslan school massacre have revived fears that the Kremlin’s campaign to ease tensions in the North Caucasus region has failed.

The incidents also have put new pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Mr. Putin, addressing a gathering of state prosecutors in Moscow yesterday, blamed foreign terrorist groups and “international criminal gangs” for the continuing unrest, but polls show that many in Russia believe the incidents are directly linked to Moscow’s stalled military campaign against Chechen separatists.

“A whole series of terrorist acts organized and executed last year by international criminal gangs shows the need for a radical restructuring of state security activity,” Mr. Putin said.

In the Caucasus republic of Dagestan on Jan. 15, Russian special forces backed by tanks and flamethrowers fought two pitched battles with insurgents believed to have strong ties to the Muslim insurgents in Chechnya.

Four Russian security agents, including a member of the Federal Security Bureau (FSB), were killed in the incidents. The bodies of four militants were recovered after a 17-hour siege from a house in Makhachkala, the republic’s capital.

Andrei Smirnov, an analyst with the Jamestown Foundation, which tracks political trends in the region, said the incident was particularly unnerving because Mr. Putin began the current campaign against Chechen separatists after a similar incursion into Dagestan in August 1999.

The two republics have heavy Islamic majorities and longstanding cultural and political ties, and Moscow analysts have worried that Chechen militants such as warlord Shamil Basayev hope to ease the pressure on Chechnya by exporting instability to the rest of the region.

Mr. Smirnov said that a new group, Shariah Jamaat, headed by Dagestani Islamist radical Rabbani Khalilov, an ally of Basayev, is behind a string of attacks over the past year that killed 30 local police and FSB officers in 2004

“After five years of war in Chechnya, Dagestan is now nearer detonation than ever before,” according to Mr. Smirnov.

Russian law-enforcement sources told the ITAR-Tass news agency that the Makhachkala terrorist cell planned a strike similar to the Beslan school seizure in September.

Basayev claimed responsibility for the Beslan massacre, in which about 340 hostages, including nearly 200 schoolchildren, were killed in the three-day standoff and in a confusing rescue operation.

Growing public protests in Beslan this week highlighted another political headache for Mr. Putin.

Residents, including many of the parents and grandparents of slain Beslan students, say they don’t believe official accounts of the attack, insisting instead that at least some of the attackers escaped and that many received aid from sympathizers in Ingushetia, the neighboring Muslim region that has long clashed with North Ossetia.

An estimated 130 to 150 Beslan residents blocked the main regional highway that passes close by the town for a second straight day yesterday. They are demanding an independent investigation of the hostage crisis and the resignation of North Ossetian President Aleksandr Dzasokhov.



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