Attacks against police put Russian province near Chechnya on edge

A police officer was wounded Friday in a bomb explosion - the latest in a series of attacks against the authorities in the southern province of Dagestan that have demoralized the local police and put the region bordering Chechnya on edge.

The motives behind the attacks, which have killed 26 police and security officers in Dagestan since the start of the year, are unclear. Some blame the killings on Islamic militants working in cahoots with Chechen rebels, while others say the violence could be rooted in rivalry between some of Dagestan's clans and ethnic groups.

In Friday's attack, a bomb exploded near a passing police patrol car in Dagestan's provincial capital, Makhachkala, lightly wounding one officer and shattering windows in adjacent buildings. Facing frequent attacks, jittery officers have begun placing flak jackets against their cars' doors, and such improvised armor helped other policemen in the car avoid injuries Friday, police said.

A mostly Muslim region on the Caspian Sea, Dagestan borders Chechnya to the east, and it suffered the August 1999 invasion of Chechnya-based rebels. Federal forces helped by local residents quickly repelled the attack and moved into Chechnya, launching the second war there in a decade.

Dagestan has remained plagued by violence, however, some of it linked to Chechnya-based militants and their local accomplices. One of Chechnya's most powerful rebel warlords, Ruslan Gelayev, was killed in a clash with federal troops in Dagestan in February 2004.

Police officials in Dagestan, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of compromising their positions, said recently that up to 50 Dagestan-born militants recently had crossed from Chechnya.

Last week, authorities in Dagestan said they had thwarted an attempt by militants to blow up a key tunnel linking the provincial capital to mountainous regions. Twenty-three artillery shells were found planted at 20-meter (20-yard) intervals on a hill north of a tunnel entrance, in an area prone to landslides, which could have triggered a collapse of the tunnel's roof, prosecutors said.

On Friday, the southern branch of the Russian Interior Ministry reported that authorities had found a large weapons cache in a forest in southeastern Chechnya, just across the border from Dagestan.

Just as in Chechnya, massive unemployment and deep poverty in Dagestan have helped create a rich recruitment base for militants and radical Islamic groups to recruit supporters.

On top of the spillover violence from Chechnya, Dagestan also has been riven by conflicts between some of its more than 100 ethnic groups.

"Social, ethnic and religious factors all have played a role here," Abdulgamid Bulatov, a Caucasus expert with Russia's Academy of Sciences, said in a recent interview with Dagestani media.

Dagestan's provincial leader, Magomedali Magomedov, has remained at the helm since before the 1991 Soviet collapse, and some analysts have linked attacks against police and other authorities in Dagestan with rival clans vying for power.

"The struggle for power and access to financial resources and raw materials has been a factor behind the attacks," Bulatov said.

ARSEN MOLLAYEV, Associated Press Writer

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