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Insurgency in Russia's Caucasus a growing threat

Overall, about 300 law enforcement agents were killed in the North Caucasus last year, and about 650 were wounded, according to official figures.

Caucasus insurgents claimed responsibility for the airport bombing and last year's double suicide bombing on the Moscow subway that killed 40. Doku Umarov, the Chechen who leads the rebellion and calls himself the Emir of the Caucasus, vowed that 2011 would be Russia's "year of blood and tears."

Russian authorities have repeatedly said that the rebels have close links with al-Qaida and get funds from sympathizers in the Arabian peninsula.

The insurgents don't appear to have anywhere near the strength to force secession from Russia, but with Moscow unable to suppress them, the region could face a long and violent stalemate. The militants operate in small, autonomous cells that are hard for authorities to track down, says Gennady Gudkov, a veteran counterintelligence officer and now a member of the Russian parliament.

Just over a decade ago, Dagestanis fought alongside Russian federal troops to fend off rebels who invaded from neighboring Chechnya. Chechnya has since grown more stable under the tough rule of its Kremlin-backed strongman, while Dagestan has become the main base for militants.

"In the Caucasus, Russia has effectively turned into a failed state," said political analyst Yulia Latynina. "In 1999 Islamists in Dagestan were marginals who suffered a defeat, but now they have become a powerful force."

Ruslan Gereyev, a sociologist monitoring the youth in Dagestan, said Islamic rebels are gaining popularity among the region's teenagers, who "see them as their idols."

A Russian SWAT team officer, who asked to be identified only as Nikolai because of the sensitivity of his job, said recruits are trained for several months, then go into action in autonomous groups of 10. He estimated the number of militants in Dagestan at about 500, many in their teens.

The recruiters seem to have large sums to attract jobless, impoverished recruits. Nikolai said a group of 12 militants recently wiped out by his unit had more than $1 million in cash. If they need funds quickly, the insurgents extort money from local businesses, he said.

But Isalmagomed Nabiyev, a human rights activist here, says Dagestanis probably fear the Islamists less than they fear the police, who "have all the power, but they act like bandits."

Although Chechnya was the root of the insurgency, it's now probably the toughest place for Islamic militants to operate. Kremlin-backed regional leader Ramzan Kadyrov, himself a former rebel, has co-opted many ex-militants into his paramilitary forces, which have been accused by rights activists of killing and torturing people with suspected links to militants.

"Kadyrov has been extremely cruel and quite successful in fighting the Islamists," Latynina said.

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© 2011 The Associated Press