Islamic rebellion in Dagestan puts Jews there on alert

MOSCOW — After several weeks of bloody clashes with Russian forces, Muslim insurgents in Dagestan have declared they are moving to the next stage in their struggle to impose Islamic rule in the area — a fight against "Zionist" domination.

In a statement posted on the Islamic rebels' Web site, insurgent leader Shamil Basaev announced that his men would purge Dagestan of leaders influenced by Zionists and by Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who is a "faithful servant of Zionist capital," the Moscow Times reported.

Dagestan, located on the Caspian Sea in the Caucasus region, is a part of Russia. The region borders the breakaway republic of Chechnya, whose drive for independence led to the 20-month war with Russia from 1994 to 1996.

Although Chechen officials say they are not involved in the latest crisis, the Dagestani rebels are led by Chechen warlords whose influence is based on military experience gained during the war with Moscow.

According to news reports, Chechen warlords and leaders, including President Aslan Maskhadov, have repeatedly alleged that the region is the victim of an international conspiracy in which "Zionists" and Israel play a crucial role.

Earlier this month, the rebels in Dagestan declared a jihad, or holy war, on Russia and seized several isolated mountain villages in Dagestan.

Russian commanders this week said that their military operations had been successful and that Chechen warlords had withdrawn their fighters from the last villages they had occupied. But officials in Moscow said dozens of rebels were still trapped in the villages, and Russian troops would destroy the insurgency this week.

Because most of Dagestan's 5,000 Jews live in a different part of the republic, they have not been affected directly by the fighting.

Yet members of the Jewish community have expressed fear for their safety and there has been a rise in Jewish emigration.

According to Alla Levy, the director of the Moscow office of the Jewish Agency for Israel, emigration to Israel from Dagestan has increased this year.

During the first half of this year, between 60 and 70 Jews left for Israel each month. Levy said the figures will increase dramatically as a result of the current crisis.

"We are not panicking, but the situation is very serious," a Jewish leader, who did not want his name to be published, said in a phone interview from the Dagestani capital of Makhachkala.

He said the rise of Islamic fundamentalism has not affected Jewish life yet, but fears it may ultimately threaten Jewish existence in the area.

"Today all this talk about jihad has nothing to do with us," he said. "But who can tell what will happen tomorrow?"

The rebels' Web site says that non-Muslims would be allowed to live in a Dagestan ruled by Islamic law. However, Christians and Jews would have to pay a special tax, the site said.

Almost 95 percent of the Dagestan's 2 million people are Muslims. Most Russian-speaking Slavs have left the republic in recent years.

Dagestan's is one of the oldest Jewish communities in the former Soviet Union, tracing its history back at least 12 centuries.

But recent years have seen a wave of aliyah because of economic hardships and a steep rise in crime.

Almost 90 percent of Dagestan's Jewish population has left since the fall of the Soviet Union.