Page last updated at 10:48 GMT, Tuesday, 12 June 2007 11:48 UK

Tense front in Moscow's 'war on terror'

By Gabriel Gatehouse
BBC News World Tonight reporter, Dagestan, Russia

Makhachkala - Dagestan's capital on the Caspian Sea
Dagestan is one of the poorest regions in the Russian Federation

At a bus station on the outskirts of Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan, hundreds of people struggle onto buses with their bags.

Drivers shout out their destinations: towns and villages in the mountains, like Khasavyurt and Buynaksk.

Hardly a week goes by when you don't hear of some kind of clash between militants and local security forces there. But they laugh off any suggestion that anyone might be afraid of going there.

"Life goes on," they say, "we're used to it".

This is the North Caucasus, Russia's front in the "war on terror".

Seized after Friday prayers

In a mosque in the south of the city, I meet Magomed, who tells me how two months ago, he and 16 other worshippers were abducted.

"We were sitting here in the mosque after Friday prayers," he says.

Mosque in Makhachkala in March
Seventeen men were abducted from the mosque in March

"People wearing masks burst in and took us away. Who and why, I don't know."

Their abductors forced them to lie on the floor at gunpoint, tied their hands behind their backs, and put bags over their heads.

The 17 men - all of whom wore their beards long - were taken out of town and questioned, their hands still tied and the sacks still on their heads. Some were beaten, but not seriously, they say. Then they had their beards shaved off.

"It was a provocation. People whose faith is weak would take up arms."

They were released the same evening, and although they suspect it was the work of local security forces, they admit they cannot be sure.

They say they have nothing to do with any kind of armed insurgency. But there was pressure from militants to respond.

"They flocked to us, filled the mosque, saying: 'How long are you going to stand for this? Why do you allow them to do this? What's wrong with you?'" Magomed recounted.

"They meant that we should defend ourselves, take up arms. Take revenge on whoever did this. But we sent them packing. The Lord will avenge us believers, we don't need weapons!"

'Hostile' security forces

This story is not an isolated incident. Allegations of police brutality, torture, kidnappings and disappearances persist in Dagestan.

Nearly 200 members of the security forces have been killed since 1999
Eduard Urazaev, government minister

Eduard Urazaev is a minister in the local government. His official title is minister for national politics, information and external communications. In practice, he is in charge of efforts to dissuade young people from throwing in their lot with Islamist insurgents.

It is a dangerous job - his last two predecessors were assassinated, and so, as a precaution, his secretary wears camouflage fatigues and a revolver on his hip.

"Nearly 200 members of the security forces have been killed since 1999. Either during counter-terrorist operations, or as a result of assassinations by terrorists-extremists," he says.

"You have to understand the psychological effects of this. Inevitably they will develop a certain hostility towards such people.

"They try to deal with them fairly, but it takes its toll, and can affect the work of the security services. You have to try to understand that. But I assure you that, as far as the civilian leadership of Dagestan is concerned, we are always calling on the security services to act only in accordance with the law."

Blood feuds

Dagestan means "land of mountains" and it's not hard to see why. Beyond the narrow strip of flat plain on the coast of the Caspian Sea, the country is a patchwork of hills, cliffs and winding mountain roads. Some villages are so isolated, they are only accessible through tunnels especially blasted through the rock.

The people who live in them come from no fewer than 30 different tribes, speaking at least 14 separate languages. No wonder then they have some old-fashioned customs, as local anthropologist Magomedkhan Magomedkhanov explains:

If someone killed an innocent person, he must be killed
Local anthropologist

"The system of blood feud - it worked, it is working and it will work in Dagestan. If there is not this custom of blood feud, you can't rule Dagestani society."

"When someone kills someone in Europe or in America, they go to court. Well, Dagestanis also do the same, of course they go to court. But there are some cases where blood feud is requested. If someone killed an innocent person, he must be killed."

In part it is this tradition, along with extreme levels of corruption and social inequality that keeps the conflict in Dagestan alive.

An innocent bystander is killed during an operation by security forces; his family takes revenge on the troops that carried out the operation.

This becomes another assassination by "extremist militants" leading to further counter-terrorist operations and so on.

Grigory Shvedov runs a website that chronicles the continuing conflicts in Dagestan and across the North Caucasus. He explains that the conflict in Dagestan is not driven by large numbers of armed men hiding in the mountains.

"There is a huge group of supporters: thousands of people who are not armed but who are providing support to those who are armed. It is exploding in the North Caucasus."

Fellow travellers

He says these supporters range from children to grandparents.

"You can support people who are insurgents by providing them with a place in your car, a room in your house, or you can support them with a Sim-card."

Mr Shvedov says the conflict is not a nationalist struggle for independence, but derives from "religiously motivated ideas of a people who feel they can't stand to live in a society which provides opportunities just for a small group of elites".

"That's how people become motivated against the whole idea of the state."

Map of the North Caucasus

Regions and territories: Dagestan
21 Jan 07 |  Country profiles
Tough lessons in defiant Dagestan
19 Jun 06 |  Europe
Violence makes Dagestan vigilant
21 Jun 06 |  Europe
North Caucasus: At a glance
29 Mar 10 |  Europe


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