* Medvedev orders protection of economic assets in Caucasus
* Hydropower plant closed for at least 2 years after bombing
* Residents say they fear further attacks
By Amie Ferris-Rotman and Katya Golubkova
MOSCOW/ATAZHUKINO, Russia, July 22 (Reuters) - President Dmitry Medvedev threatened on Thursday to sack top security officials if they fail to prevent more attacks on strategic assets in Russia's North Caucasus after suspected Islamist rebels bombed a hydropower plant there.
Six masked men stormed the power plant in Kabardino-Balkaria on Wednesday, shot dead two guards and set off remote-controlled bombs beside the main generator units, investigators for the prosecutor's office said in a statement.
The attack ignited fears the Islamist insurgency along Russia's southern flank was expanding beyond the epicentre of violence, and analysts said the promise by rebels to shift their focus to economic targets was being fulfilled.
"There needs to be a fundamentally different system, designed and unified for all economic structures in the Caucasus," Medvedev told top energy official Igor Sechin at a meeting in Moscow shown on state television.
Officials "must do all they can to make sure that such things do not happen again. If they do, none of the law enforcement, security and energy company chiefs will keep their jobs. They will all be fired."
A year ago Islamist rebels vowed "economic war" on Russia's strategic assets such as pipelines and power stations as part of their plan to create a separate pan-Caucasus Islamic state.
The insurgency leader and Russia's most wanted man, Chechen rebel Doku Umarov, self-named "Emir of the Caucasus Emirate", claimed responsibility for twin suicide bombings in the Moscow metro that killed 40 people in March and the derailing of an express train in November that killed at least 26.
TWO YEARS NEEDED TO REBUILD PLANT
Sechin earlier on Thursday visited the burnt-out Baksanskaya plant in Atazhukino, about 40 km (25 miles) to the west of Kabardino-Balkaria's capital Nalchik, where police armed with Kalashnikov automatic rifles nervously guarded the entrance.
Although power supplies were not disrupted, Sechin said it would take almost two years to rebuild the plant, and it would cost 1.5 billion roubles ($49.10 million).
No one has taken responsibility for the bombing. But state-run media, citing unnamed law enforcement sources on Thursday, said authorities and police believed a local Islamist leader masterminded the attack.
Bewildered residents of Atazhukino, a town of 60,000 people, gazed at spirals of grey smoke still drifting into the sky out of the dilapidated plant, while the air was heavy with a toxic smell of burnt rubber and metal.
"They (rebels) receive money to do this, to scare us," said a 55-year-old local who did not wish to give his name.
The Kremlin is struggling to contain an Islamist insurgency in Chechnya, site of two separatist wars since the mid-1990s, Dagestan and Ingushetia, where youths fuelled by poverty and the ideology of global jihad stage near-daily attacks.
Violence in relatively peaceful Kabardino-Balkaria, west of this turbulent trio, has grown in recent months and analysts warn that the region's proximity to Sochi, due to host the 2014 Winter Olympics, could pose a new headache to the Kremlin.
A 15-year-old high school student, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said fellow classmates were shocked by the attack. "Absolutely everyone is horrified. I am so scared of what the terrorists could now do," he said as women in headscarves stacked watermelons for sale at the roadside.
(Writing by Amie Ferris-Rotman; Editing by Mark Heinrich)
The Attack on the Hydroelectric Plant Is Anything but a Change of Strategy – So Why Did It Catch the Authorities by Surprise?
After a dramatic assault on a hydroelectric plant in the troubled Caucasian republic of Kabardino-Balkaria in the early hours of Wednesday morning, the hunt is on for a previously little known insurgent leader. Meanwhile, the authorities are scrabbling to improve security at the republic’s dams and power stations. But the investigators’ biggest challenge will be untangling the web of ethnic grievance and religious fundamentalism that inspires the insurgency in Kabardino-Balkaria.
Wednesday’s dramatic raid on Kabardino-Balkaria’s Baksanskaya hydroelectric plant was neither especially bloody by local standards - only two policemen were killed, which in a region blighted by regular suicide bombings and ambushes is light casualties – nor, at first glance, very effective. Energy supplies were barely interrupted thanks to reserve sources, and RusHydro, the state monopoly in charge of Russia’s hydropower plants, quickly claimed that the two destroyed generators had been scheduled for replacement by 2014 anyway, and that the terrorists had merely hastened the process.
All that has allowed the authorities to put a relatively brave face on what was actually an embarrassing lapse in security. The attack was obviously well planned coordinated, and carried all the hall marks of being carried out by experienced fighters with access to good intelligence, said Andrei Soldatov, security expert and editor of the Agentura.ru Web site.
The raid on the power station was preceded by a diversionary bombing near an Interior Ministry building in Baksan, five kilometers from the dam. No one was hurt by the blast, but nearly all the police in the area were summoned to the scene, and others placed on high alert protecting their buildings, the Kommersant daily reported.
It was under cover of this commotion that a five-man squad of militants attacked the Baksanskaya hydroelectric plant one hour later, using silenced weapons to kill the only two officers on duty – Ensign Aslan Mezhgikhov and Junior Sergeant Timur Tutukov – before they could raise the alarm, then beating and tying up two technicians. They planted one time bomb on each of the station’s three aging turbines, two of which went off at 5:50 in the morning – over an hour after the militants had made their escape. Two more devices destroyed an oil circuit breaker, ensuring flammable liquid continued to flow into the fire created by the first explosions.
But the apparent professionalism of the perpetrators depended on a lack of preparation on the part of the security services, Soldatov pointed out. “[The terrorists] obviously knew that it would be guarded by just two people and that the staff would not be able to resist even a small group,” he said.
But it is not as if the authorities did not have ample warning of the threat to the mountainous republic’s numerous hydroelectric dams. On November 18, 2009 security forces in Kabardino-Balkaria averted a similar attack when they uncovered a stash of plastic explosive and weapons hidden in woods just 200 meters from another hydroelectric plant on the Cherek River. A day before that discovery, explosions had struck a cable-car and another, smaller hydropower plant on the Adir Su river, a tributary of the Baksan.
In August 2009 Doku Umarov, the undisputed leader of the jihadist insurgency in the Caucasus, claimed responsibility for the disaster at the Sayano-Sushenskya hydro plant in Siberia, which killed 75 and led to widespread power cuts.
That was probably no more than opportunism on Umarov’s part – no evidence has emerged linking the disaster to terrorism and the official report blamed it on long-term metal fatigue in the dam’s second turbine - but “the point is that he clearly showed his interest in such kinds of attacks,” said Soldatov. “And why the forces and the law enforcement decided not to pay attention to that, for me it’s very strange.”
New kid on the block
All the more strange given the recent appointment in Kabardino-Balkaria of a new insurgent leader looking to make his mark. On Thursday morning RIA Novosti quoted an anonymous source “in the security structures of the North Caucasus Federal District” who named Kazbek Tashuyev as the likely organizer of the attack. “Staff at the plant identified members of his gang,” the source said.
The Russian media were soon referring to Tashuyev, who also goes by the Arabic moniker of Abdul-Jabbab, as “a famous fighter,” but relatively little is actually known about him. He is an ethnic Cherkess who was born in 1978 in the Baksan district of Kabardino-Balkaria where Wednesday’s attack took place. But he is believed to be the main contender for the leadership of the “Baksansky Djamat” insurgent group after its leader Anzor Astemirov, one of Umarov’s right hand men and an organizer of the raid on Nalchik, the republic’s capital, was killed in March this year. A lengthy interview with a Jihadist Web site in which Yeshuyev promised a series of attacks on targets in Kabardino-Balkaria was seen as a bid to cement his authority.
The insurgency in Kabardino-Balkaria is all the more difficult to untangle because of the web of ethnic and religious loyalties. “The story is quite different because Kabardino-Balkaria is not such an Islamized region as for example Dagestan or Ingushetia,” said Soldatov. “One of the biggest problems in the republic is not Islamization but the conflict between different ethnic groups,” he said, adding that there is some evidence that Balkar youths have joined the Jamaat not for religious reasons, but a sense that they and their families were being pressured by the authorities.
But Sergei Markedonov, an expert on Caucasian affairs who laments the lack of serious analysis of the region, is more cautious. “There’s definitely an ethnic component to the insurgency in Kabardino-Balkaria, but to say all the Jihadists are Balkars is a massive simplification,” he said.
Astemirov, he points out, was a Kabardin. Tashuyev is Cherkessian. And significantly, the Islamists in the republic of Karachai-Cherkessia are thought to be more “intellectually motivated” than their counterparts in neighboring republics. “In Ingushetia, for example, terrorist attacks are often motivated simply by personal vendettas,” said Markedonov.
Astemirov was one of a number of Muslims from Kabardino-Balkaria who studied at universities in Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries in the 1990s. The education he acquired there made him a highly regarded expert on Islamic law in the eyes of many in the insurgency, and led to his appointment by Umarov as the supreme judge on the sharia court of the “Caucasian Emirate,” the shadow state the Chechen claims to lead. The presence, and commitment of Jihadists in Kabardino-Balkaria should not be underestimated.
“A friend of mine from the region, who I won’t name, says we shouldn’t be talking of three nationalities in the republic - Russians, Kabardins, Balkars - but four. And the fourth are Muslims,” said Markedonov.
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