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Rebel attacks fuel fears in Caucasus

Ingushetia, once stable, now could go Chechnya's way

MOSCOW -- The blazing rebel attacks in Ingushetia herald a renewed attempt by militants to carry the Chechen war into neighboring regions, drawing Russian troops deeper into the troubled Caucasus even as the Kremlin was trying to distance itself from the military morass in Chechnya.

The attacks, which killed 92 people, also appeared to be an attempt to galvanize the anger that has long simmered among Russia's Muslims over abuses and discrimination.

Some 1,000 fighters participated in the near simultaneous assaults Monday night on 15 police and border guard facilities and other targets in Nazran, Ingushetia's main city, and a handful of other settlements, regional officials said yesterday.

Sixty-seven of the dead were members of law enforcement agencies.

Ingushetia had seen little of the fighting raging in Chechnya, its neighbor to the east. The last time the nearly five-year-old war spilled into Ingushetia was an incursion in a remote area in October 2002.

Ingushetia once was united with Chechnya in a single republic, but it broke off as leader Dzhokhar Dudayev whipped up separatist fervor in the 1990s. It declared itself firmly a part of Russia.

As Chechnya plunged into two wars interspersed by three years of lawlessness and de facto independence, Ingushetia appeared comparatively stable and progressing in fits and starts toward a degree of prosperity. The Ingush government built a new capital city, Magas, including a gleaming airport. Tens of thousands of Chechens fled to the republic after the second Chechnya war exploded in 1999.

In an effort to bolster Ingushetia's role as an antidote to Chechnya, the Kremlin made the republic a free economic zone to boost investment.

It also threw its support behind Murat Zyazikov, a former high official of the Federal Security Service, the successor to the Soviet-era KGB, who was elected president of Ingushetia and entrusted with bringing order.

But beneath Ingushetia's thin glaze of stability, the republic's residents have been plagued by increasing fear. Scores of mysterious abductions and disappearances have been reported in recent months, and suspicion has fallen on Russian security forces.

After a short lull this spring -- apparently sparked by some media attention -- the abductions resumed about 10 days ago, and Ingush say that for the first time young women have been among those seized.

The Monday attacks targeted Ingush law enforcement agencies that many speculate are connected with the kidnappings. Officials say many of the attackers were Ingush rather than Chechens -- a possible indication the attacks were revenge for abductions, as well as a sign that Ingush are increasingly finding common cause with Chechen separatists.

Like Chechnya, Ingushetia is predominantly Muslim, and the strict Wahhabi strain of Islam that has increasingly dominated the Chechen insurgent forces could be a banner under which discontented Muslims would rally.

Even Chechnya's separatist president Aslan Maskhadov, seen as a secular Muslim at heart, has espoused fundamentalist Islam as Wahhabi warlords such as Shamil Basayev gained influence.

''It is likely that many Ingush are becoming more and more militant as a response and, in what is a novelty for Ingushetia, perhaps they are also becoming more separatist because of the action of the Russian authorities," said Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent defense analyst.

In the view of Colonel Ilya Shabalkin, the spokesman for Russia's forces in Chechnya, the Ingushetia assaults were a showpiece ''aimed to demonstrate the rebels' effectiveness to attract funding from foreign terrorist networks."

After the attacks, President Vladimir Putin announced a new regiment of troops would be sent to Ingushetia, deepening Russian forces' commitments to the region while trying to reduce the number of troops in Chechnya under the Kremlin's plan to restore stability through civil means such as elections.

The new regiment will consist of Interior Ministry troops, widely reviled in Chechnya for alleged brutal abuses -- and similar actions in Ingushetia could only harden resistance to the Kremlin.

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