Shamil Basayev, the military commander of Muslim guerrillas battling Russian troops along the Chechen border with Dagestan, issued a fiery warning today that the surge in attacks is a prelude to more intense warfare in the rebellious southern Russian region.
Basayev, who led one of the deadliest anti-Russian raids of the Chechens' 1994-96 bid for independence from Moscow, was quoted in interviews published today as saying his forces would expel Russian troops from Dagestan, a Caucasus Mountain region that borders the Caspian Sea to the East and Chechnya to the West.
"There is no force on Earth capable of stopping the Muslim fighters other than the Almighty, who guides them on the road of sacred war," he told reporters from the Interfax and Reuters news agencies who had been escorted to Basayev's command post from Grozny, the Chechen capital.
"Russia, following the advice of former prime minister Sergei Stepashin, should control two bridges across the Volga and Don but not try to keep the North Caucasus," he added, referring to two rivers that flow more than 100 miles north of the present combat zone.
In recent days, Muslim guerrillas have said they had seized several Dagestani villages in a bid to end Russian control there and create an Islamic state, while Russian troops have sought to repulse them with helicopter gunships and artillery. Ten Russian soldiers have died in the latest hostilities.
In fact, the militants appear to have little chance of fulfilling their pledge to establish Islamic rule in Dagestan, one of the most diverse regions of Russia, with more than 30 ethnic groups. But Basayev's comments offered a glimpse of the impetus behind the insurgents, who claim to have downed four Russian helicopters.
Chechen civilian authorities have denied sponsoring the guerrillas. Basayev, who at the height of the Chechen war led a raid on the nearby Russian city of Budennovsk in which more than 100 people died, also denied that Chechen officials had sanctioned the attacks, but he added that "nobody will prohibit us from volunteering."
As the fighting continued today, Russian officials hinted they were preparing an offensive to dislodge the guerrillas from the Botlikh district of Dagestan. They estimated that the insurgent force totals about 1,200 men.
CAPTION: Guerrilla chief Shamil Basayev says, "There is no force on Earth capable of stopping the Muslim fighters" from expelling the Russians from Dagestan.