The leader of a violent Islamic militant group believed responsible for a wave of shootings and bombings in the southern Russian republic of Dagestan was killed Wednesday in a four-hour shootout with police, authorities said.
The apparent death of Rasul Makasharipov, a former interpreter for Chechen separatist leader Shamil Basayev, was seen as a key development for authorities who have virtually been under siege in the republic, which borders war-torn Chechnya.
Makasharipov, twice reported killed in earlier clashes with police only to turn up alive, was identified as the leader of the militant Jennet and Shariat jamaats, or Islamic groups. Over the last several months, the groups have been responsible for blowing up a cargo train, killing 29 police officers and assassinating two officials and a prominent journalist.
"Relief and gratitude are [our] emotions," Dagestani Interior Ministry spokesman Col. Abdul Musayev said in a telephone interview after the reports of the rebel leader's death. "We still have a lot of very serious, painstaking work ahead of us."
"Even with so odious a figure as Rasul Makasharipov being killed today in a firefight, this does not mean that extremism and terrorism are over and done with," he added. "But it does inspire hope that this scum will eventually be wiped out in the republic."
In recent months, the violence in Dagestan has surpassed even that in the republic of Chechnya, prompting one Kremlin official to warn recently that the northern Caucasus could be slipping out of Russia's control.
Only Tuesday, two police officers were killed and several others were wounded when a bomb tore through a police post in the Dagestani capital, Makhachkala, where Wednesday's shootout occurred. Eleven Russian servicemen were killed and 27 people were injured when a roadside bomb exploded Friday.
The Shariat group took responsibility for the latest rebel attacks, along with the June 28 shooting death of prominent local journalist Magomed-Zagid Varisov outside his home in Makhachkala. Five bombs exploded in the republic over the June 25-26 weekend.
The attacks are "another reminder of the fact that war has been underway for a long time in Dagestan, as is the case in Chechnya," the Kavkaz Center, a Chechen separatist website, said in a report this week.
The violence in Dagestan has been exacerbated by growing conflicts among the republic's several dozen ethnic groups, the largest two of which are vying for power. Corruption and soaring unemployment, officially estimated at 32%, are also feeding the unrest.
Against a backdrop of about 70 terrorist attacks in Dagestan since the beginning of the year and increasing violence in other republics surrounding Chechnya, Russian President Vladimir V. Putin's envoy to the region was recently reported as saying that corrupt monopolization of money and power by local authorities had led to dangerous social apathy. Excerpts of the envoy's confidential report were published in the Moscow newspaper, Moskovsky Komsomolets.
"The authorities do not have reliable support in many entities of the federation," envoy Dmitry Kozak said in his report.
"The problem now is it is a kind of war of everybody against everybody," which encompasses militant Islam, frictions within the political elite, interethnic conflicts and demands for revenge against police following violent crackdowns, said Alexei Malashenko, a Caucasus specialist with the Carnegie Moscow Center.
"In the last few days I discussed this problem with people from Dagestan [and elsewhere in the region], and practically all of them affirm that Dagestan may be on the eve of a big explosion, a big political explosion," he said.
Authorities said Makasharipov, for whom a $50,000 reward was offered last October, was killed after police, acting on a tip, surrounded a house in Makhachkala in which he was hiding. His body was identified through fingerprints and by relatives, police said. Another militant, identified as Shamil Kebedov, also was killed.
But analysts said at least 10 other jamaats were still operating in Dagestan, meaning that Makasharipov's death was unlikely to end the violence.