Russian region says militants flocking to Syria

MAKHACHKALA, Russia (AP) — The leader of a restive province in Russia’s Caucasus Mountains says local Islamic militants are fighting alongside rebels in Syria and could further destabilize their home region when they return.

Ramazan Abdulatipov, the acting president of the province of Dagestan, said in remarks posted on his website Sunday that the “export of extremists” should be prevented by making it hard for militants to leave Russia.

“These people go there and they will come back tomorrow with the backing of international extremist and terrorist organizations,” Abdulatipov said during a meeting with local officials Friday.

Andrei Konin, the head of the regional branch of Russia’s Federal Security Service, the main KGB successor agency, told the meeting that about 200 residents of Dagestan are currently in Syria, and some of them are fighting alongside rebels.

Konin said many people from Dagestan go to Syria for studies but end up in rebel ranks to join what they consider a jihad or holy war.

Russia has been the key ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad, protecting him from the United Nations sanctions and providing him with weapons in the civil war, which has killed more than 93,000 people since March 2011.

Some observers have voiced concern that militants from the Caucasus who joined the Syrian rebels could try to take revenge against Russia for its support of Assad and try to strike 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.

Russian officials have pledged to make the games “the safest Olympics in history,” but security experts warn that the Islamist insurgency that has spread across Russia’s North Caucasus after two separatist wars in Chechnya could threaten Sochi, located about 500 kilometers (300 miles) west of Dagestan.

Earlier this month, a top Chechen rebel warlord called on militants to disrupt the Sochi Games, which he described as “satanic dances on the bones of our ancestors.”

Dagestan has become the epicenter of the Caucasus insurgency, with rebels mounting nearly daily attacks on police and other officials.

One of the two ethnic Chechen brothers from Russia who are accused of staging the Boston Marathon bombings spent six months last year in Dagestan. Russian investigators have been trying to determine whether he had contact with local rebels.

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