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Dagestan smolders, but less fire

Caucasus conflict continues 14 days after Russia's premier declared it

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Russia's war against Islamic extremists in the impoverished southern province of Dagestan will probably smolder for years but is unlikely to lead to another Chechnya-style defeat for Moscow, analysts say. That's more due to local differences than a change in Kremlin attitude.

As in the disastrous 1994-96 military campaign to crush nearby Chechnya's independence drive, Russian bravado and disinformation have helped to obscure the conflict's true face.

Newly appointed Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin pledged on Aug. 10 to end the Dagestan incursion by an estimated 2,000 Muslim fighters "in two weeks." Russian generals have declared themselves on the verge of victory at least twice since then and claim to have killed more than 600 rebels. A spokesman for the insurgents told Reuters yesterday, "If you added up all the people they say they killed, there would be no one left in the mountains."

Mr. Putin's deadline expires today, with fighting actually escalating in Dagestan's remote Botlikh district. Having apparently learned little from their thrashing by lightly armed but highly mobile Chechen guerrillas three years ago, Russian commanders are again pouring in soldiers, artillery, and air power to hammer rebel-held mountain villages. The only visible effect so far: An estimated 10,000 civilians have fled the area.

THIS is another painful situation for Russia, "and it has some potential to spread," says Alexei Malashenko, with the Carnegie Endowment in Moscow. "But there are also key differences between this conflict and the war Russia lost in Chechnya. Beyond the surface there is little similarity."

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