MOSCOW Russian troops on Sunday reported killing 49 militants in a massive security sweep that followed angry comments from President Vladimir Putin about raging violence in the troubled North Caucasus.
The National Anti-Terror Committee said the operation was conducted across several republics in the volatile Muslim region and resulted in the removal of some of the most “odious” guerrilla commanders and their followers.
“The coordinated action helped terminate the activities of several odious gang leaders, gang members and their associates, substantially damaging the system under which the bandits operate,” the Interfax news agency quoted a committee statement as saying.
The committee said the “large-scale and massive” raids involved both local and federal troops and that 90 militia bases had been destroyed.
It gave no details about the time frame for the operation or when it began.
Putin held a meeting on Friday on the North Caucasus in which he berated officials for failing to do enough to bring the region under full control after it witnessed two post-Soviet wars for the independence of rebel Chechnya.
The region has since witnessed an Islamist insurgence that has focused most heavily on Chechnya’s larger eastern neighbour Dagestan and the poverty-wracked republic of Ingushetia.
Russian official are especially concerned about security on the restless frontier as they prepare to stage the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in the nearby Black Sea resort of Sochi.
Putin referred to the Winter Games and Russia’s subsequent plans to host the football World Cup in 2018 as reasons to keep a close eye on the problem.
“I would like to point out that a series of very major events — both sports-related and political — will soon be held in Russia,” Putin told his top security advisers at the meeting.
“It is a matter of honour for all law enforcement officials to ensure that these events are staged in a normal, business-like and festive manner, so that nothing can put a pall over these events.”
Putin did not specify what political events he had in mind. Russia held elections in March that saw the veteran leader return to a third presidential term.
Security officials last year announced they had uncovered a plot to attack Sochi during the Olympics that they linked to guerrillas based not only in the North Caucasus but also Georgia, Russia’s regional foe.
Officials in Tbilisi angrily denied the charges and accused Moscow of trying to pin blame on them for their own security problems.
The Anti-Terror Committee statement listed a series of operations conducted in Dagestan and other republics that resulted in the discovery of huge caches of arms and explosives.
It added that 30 people had been arrested while another 20 were “convinced” to appear at police stations voluntarily and confess their involvement in rebel gangs.
Ingushetia president Yunus-Bek Yevkurov published what he said was his personal mobile phone number that the rebels could use to confess their past illegal activities and come clean.
“Today, you can all return home having repented for what you have done,” Yevkurov wrote in his blog.
“I promise everyone who comes in peace and gives themselves up that they will have all their rights protected,” he said.
But the RIA Novosti news agency said only 17 militants had handed themselves over to Ingush authorities voluntarily in the past two years.
The death of 49 guerrillas in a single Russian operation would be a serious blow to rebel forces that have reportedly lost slightly more than 300 men since the start of the year.
None of the websites most often used by the rebels mentioned serious fighting and did not report the Anti-Terror Committee’s claims.