A remote and rugged mountain region in southern Russia turned into a freshly opened war zone Sunday as federal forces, including army units, opened fire from the ground and the air on Islamic militants who late last week occupied four villages along the border with the breakaway republic of Chechnya.
Facing one of the most direct challenges to Moscow's authority in the troubled Caucasus region since the disastrous 1994-96 Chechen war, Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin arrived Sunday in Dagestan, joining a lineup of top military and Interior Ministry commanders, including Anatoly Kvashnin, chief of the Russian army general staff.
Federal forces Sunday redoubled artillery and rocket attacks begun Saturday on the militants' strongholds after more than 2,000 residents _ mostly women and children _ fled the area. No casualty figures have been reported.
Russian forces were using helicopter gunships and tanks against several hundred heavily armed commandos, although details of the fighting were sketchy and at times conflicting. The use of the army, which has become badly demoralized since the lost war in Chechnya, signaled the seriousness with which Moscow regards the militants' increasingly aggressive campaign.
Stepashin, a former interior minister who played a key role in the opening phase of the Chechen war, said Sunday upon his arrival in the Dagestani capital, Makhachkala, that he was "not afraid" to take responsibility for the government's fierce response to the militants' challenge.
Interviewed by Russian television correspondents, the refugees said the militants were led by two widely known Chechen field commanders, Shamil Basayev and a shadowy Jordanian-born figure known merely as Hattab, who reportedly runs a commando training center in Chechnya.
Both men have been waging an undeclared war against Chechnya's elected president, Aslan Maskhadov, whose control of his breakaway region has been enfeebled by widespread lawlessness.
Attacks have increased along the Chechen border with neighboring Russian regions in recent months, as armed commandos clash with Interior Ministry troops in what Russian security officials have described as an organized terrorist campaign.
About 50 Interior Ministry personnel have been killed in almost 80 such incidents this year, according to a recent report in a Russian military newspaper.
The Russian Defense Ministry recently began to transfer army units into Dagestan at the request of the regional government, which had reported increasingly aggressive activity by Wahhabi groups. Wahhabis, a militant Islamic sect, have set as their goal the establishment of an independent Islamic state in Dagestan, copying the rule of Islamic law already in place in neighboring Chechnya.
The arrival of army units may have triggered the militants to step up their campaign inside Dagestan now and to push things to a confrontation.
"The mission of the army units," the Moscow newspaper Izvestia reported, "is to knock the Wahhabites out of Dagestan territory and regain control over the mountain passes" along the Chechen border. The Wahhabi militants reportedly have had the backing of Chechen field commanders, some of whom are members of the Shura, a council of radical Muslim leaders established in Chechnya, or Ichkeria as it calls itself.
In a report Sunday from Grozny, the Chechen capital, a member of the Congress of Ichkeria and Dagestan said that a new TV station has started broadcasting in Dagestan, with the goal of "explaining to the local population the real tasks of Dagestan's Islamic armed formations." In another statement, a spokesman for the congress, headed by Basayev, acknowledged that members of the Islamic Legion, had crossed into Dagestan in the past week.