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Koran, not Russia, rules in southern region

Bearded men in combat fatigues sit at a roadblock at the entrance to their mountain village in Russia's Dagestan region. A car approaches. They lift their guns and aim toward it.

The car stops. Inside, a man is smoking a cigarette _ an act forbidden by the Koran, they tell the man as they drag him into a nearby building flying a green Islamic flag. A mullah pronounces the punishment _ 40 cane blows on the back.

In this part of southern Russia, the Koran _ as interpreted by local religious leaders _ is the law of the land, and Russian law means nothing. Across the Caucasus Mountains region, a rebellious mix of nationalism and Islamic fundamentalism is challenging Moscow's grip.

Recently, that challenge has escalated into Russia's biggest internal military confrontation since the 1994-96 war in neighboring Chechnya. Gunmen who are believed to be Islamic militants seized several Dagestani villages on Saturday and have demanded an end to Russia's presence.

Russia has blamed Chechnya, which emerged from its two-year war effectively independent.

But Dagestan and Chechnya's other neighbors, such as Ingushetia and North Ossetia, have nurtured Islamic independence movements of their own, giving Kremlin leaders nightmares of a fundamentalist tide sweeping away a chunk of southern Russia.

Karamakhi, a village 25 miles southwest of Dagestan's capital, Makhachkala, is the main stronghold of the Wahhabis, a militant religious sect that has defied Moscow and imposed its interpretation of Islamic law in Dagestan.

Even before the recent violence in western Dagestan, Karamakhi and four neighboring villages had become places that Russian officials and troops didn't dare enter.

Together with like-minded secessionists in Chechnya, the Wahhabis in Dagestan have pledged to overthrow the local Russian government and merge the two regions into one independent Islamic republic.

"I don't accept and I don't obey any single Russian law, and neither do my men," Wahhabi leader Bagaudin Magomedov told the newspaper Youth of Dagestan. "If the people of Dagestan don't like to live in accordance with the law of Allah, we will take corresponding steps."

A year ago, Magomedov's men evicted local police and administrators from Karamakhi and surrounding villages. Authorities could do nothing and pleaded to the federal government for help.

Sergei Stepashin, who was the Russian interior minister at the time, went to Karamakhi and reached a pact with the Wahhabis _ presenting them with expensive Western-made medical equipment for a local clinic in exchange for a face-saving agreement to let police return to the village.

The Wahhabis agreed to elect a local administrator but never let police back in.

The Wahhabis police their territory themselves, enforcing their strict interpretation of Islamic rule among the 10,000 residents. People are forbidden to listen to music or view pictures of living things. Visitors are only allowed under escort, and cameras are forbidden.

All women are required to wear Islamic dress, covering their faces, arms and legs. Children are forbidden to have toy animals or dolls, considered pagan objects by local religious leaders.

While the rules are tough, there have been no reported executions or severe punishment for violators. The man stopped for smoking, for instance, was given a punishment that looked more exemplary than painful. Locals say drunkards, thieves and prostitutes have simply been evicted from the area controlled by the Wahhabis.

Dagestan: rebel province

Federal troops are trying to put down Muslim rebels in the mountainous Russian republic of Dagestan.

Population: 2.2-million, 58% rural.

Area: About twice as large as Maryland.

Politics: Part of Russian Federation.

Economy: Heavily subsidized by Russia; oil and electricity production important.

Ethnic groups: 24% Avars; more than 30 others.

Main languages: Avar and Russian.

Religion: 88% Muslim.

Sources: Caucasian Club, CaspianNet, Dagestan Republic, news reports