MOSCOW -- Islamic rebels in southern Russia reopened their war for independence yesterday by launching a new incursion into the republic of Dagestan hours after a car bomb exploded in a military housing block there, killing at least 22 people.
Russian officials said the incursion and the car bomb were "links in the same chain," demonstrating that despite Russian declarations of victory two weeks ago, religious and political unrest continues unabated in the volatile Caucasus region.
The incursion by several thousand rebel fighters from bases in separatist Chechnya was the second into Dagestan in a month. In the first, the rebels seized control of a half-dozen villages before retreating two weeks later. At the time, rebel leader Shamil Basayev warned that they had completed the first phase of their campaign to create a unified Islamic state out of Chechnya and Dagestan.
Also at the time, Russian officials declared victory, saying that the rebels had been roundly defeated by a punishing aerial and artillery campaign.
"Today it seems we are witnessing the beginning of the second stage," Abdul Musayev, spokesman for Dagestan's Interior Ministry, said yesterday. "The fighters have thoroughly planned the operation. Its goal is to undermine the constitutional order in Dagestan."
The car bomb exploded shortly before 9: 40 p.m. Saturday in Buynaksk, Dagestan's second-largest city, outside an apartment building in a housing compound for the Russian army's 156th Brigade.
By last night, 22 bodies had been pulled from the rubble. More than 100 people were injured, 53 seriously enough to be hospitalized. Dozens were missing, and the toll is expected to rise as rescuers recover more bodies.
Many residents of the building were at home watching a televised soccer match between France and Ukraine. Many of the victims were women and children.
The bomb was one of three apparently designed to detonate in succession, officials said, but police managed to defuse the other two minutes before they were to go off.
About 2 a.m. yesterday, up to 2,000 rebel fighters crossed the border from Chechnya into Dagestan, seized control of four villages in the Novolakskoye district and began battling Russian forces, Musayev said. The area is about 40 miles north of the one they seized early last month, and its population is believed to include ethnic Chechens as well as the Lak minority group, which has been increasingly restless in recent years.
"We are sure there is a direct link not only between the terrorist act in Buynaksk and the morning incursion into Novolakskoye but also between today's incidents and the August intrusion," Musayev said. "These acts are links in the same chain of attacks."
Historical animosity between Russians and Muslim minorities in southern Russia has been aggravated by poverty and the powerful influence of fundamentalist Islam in the region.
Both Chechnya and Dagestan are largely Muslim. But unlike Chechnya, Dagestan is a patchwork of dozens of competing ethnic groups, many with their own languages, and most remain loyal to Russia.
The most militant group in Dagestan is the multiethnic Wahhabi sect, which has its stronghold in the villages of Karamakhi and Chabanmakhi, about 30 miles south of the capital, Makhachkala. About two years ago, members of the sect declared the two villages to be an Islamic state and expelled Russian police and other signs of Russian authority.
After repelling the rebel incursion into Dagestan month, Russian forces decided to deal with the Wahhabi sect. For the past two weeks, they have been pounding Karamakhi and Chabanmakhi, using helicopters and artillery to oust the militants.
"The Russian Federation has had no authority over the villages of Karamakhi and Chabanmakhi for the past two years," Russian Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin said yesterday in a television interview. "If we continue to do nothing about the situation, it will be a crime against Russia."
Pub Date: 9/06/99