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Friday, September 3, 1999 Published at 21:20 GMT 22:20 UK

World: Europe

Battle for the soul of the Caucasus

Pro-Russian volunteers take up arms against the Islamists

By Moscow Correspondent Robert Parsons

The BBC's Robert Parsons: "Villages at the centre of a spiritual rebellion"
More potent than the Kalashnikov rifle, more subversive than the corroding power of money - a resurgent and fundamentalist Islamist movement is challenging the authority of the state in the traditionally Muslim provinces of Russia's north Caucasus.

[ image: Rebels have rejected Russian authority and imposed Islamic law]
Rebels have rejected Russian authority and imposed Islamic law
In Dagestan, on the shores of the Caspian Sea, the villages of Karamakhi and Chabanmakhi are at the centre of a spiritual rebellion - they do not recognise Moscow's right to rule.

A year ago, they banished the local government and set up their own court and police force - justice is swift and based on the Islamic Sharia law.

"It's not like the Russian system we've had up to now, where a man gets in trouble is charged, pays a small sum and then goes out to do the crime again," an Islamist official explains.

Police kept in check

Battle for the Caucasus
They claim crime is lower than anywhere else in Russia. The villagers man roadblocks against people whom they ironically decribe as bandits - the official Dagestani police.

The Caucasus is seeing a battle for the heart and soul of the mountain peoples.

Ranged against the Islamists are loyalist volunteers, who are fighting with the authorities to crush the rebellion.

For the moment at least they are still in the majority.

The violence is exposing the ethnic fault-lines that fissure Dagestan - a small republic where more than 100 languages are spoken.

Risk of civil war

[ image: Growing up in a region torn by conflict]
Growing up in a region torn by conflict
The longer the fighting continues the greater the risk of civil war - and a conflagration that could spread throughout the region.

"I would like to ask these Russian generals to stay out of the internal conflict in Dagestan - not to get involved and make things worse," one of the Muslim rebels told the BBC.

"There is no military solution here."

But Russia will not abandon its Caucasian provinces easily - they form its strategic underbelly and are a vital supply route for oil. If Moscow loses Dagestan, a chain of dominoes could tumble from the Caspian to the Black Sea.

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