MAKHACHKALA, Russia (AP) – Residents of the capital of the poor and chaotic Russian province of Dagestan have come to call it “the hunt for cops” – more than two years of bold and brutal attacks on police.

Who’s conducting it, what the motives are and even if it’s a coordinated campaign are unknown. But the violence proceeds. On Friday, 10 soldiers were killed when their truck was blown up as it pulled up to a public bath house, not 11 as reported earlier, rescue officials said.

Col. Akhberdilav Akilov was one of the first to feel the fury of the attacks. In September 2002, as his car approached his office at the regional police headquarters, masked gunmen in a passing car opened fire from Kalashnikov assault rifles, instantly killing the head of the police’s anti-extremism and anti-terrorism department. The assailants, who also killed Akilov’s driver and a passer-by, made a safe getaway.

The bold, daylight killing was seen as a reflection of the high level of everyday violence in the mostly Muslim Dagestan region, which borders on Chechnya. But it also marked the opening salvo in what has become a long series of murders specifically targeting police in Dagestan, a mountainous region of numerous small ethnic groups bordering the Caspian Sea.

Six officers from Akilov’s department were killed in the three months following his murder; 26 police officers have been killed in gun and bomb attacks this year alone in “the hunt for cops.”

The motives behind the attacks are unclear. Some blame the killings on Islamic militants working in cahoots with Chechen rebels attacking military targets while others say the violence could be rooted in rivalry between some of Dagestan’s clans and ethnic groups.

Still others, including some prosecuted for the crimes, say the attacks are revenge for unbridled police brutality.

“I did not kill your son,” suspect Gadzhi Abidov told the parents of a murdered police officer during a court hearing last year, before he was sentenced to 20 years in prison for the killing. “But believe me, if I’d had a weapon, if I’d had the slightest possibility, I would have killed him. If you knew how he treated people in the interrogation cells, you’d have cursed him.”

The roots of the hunt reach back to fall 1998, when Dagestani authorities moved to fight back against growing criminality by forming a special police division to combat kidnapping. It was soon expanded to work against extremism and terrorism – the biggest threats facing the southern Russian republic, which suffered a spate of abductions, explosions and contract killings. The following year, Chechnya-based rebels raided Dagestan twice before being forced out.

The new division was under pressure to show results, and its officers regularly started employing torture to squeeze confessions out of suspects, said an officer in the regional prosecutor’s office who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

Abidov testified that his interrogators had put a plastic bag over his head and beat him about the head and kidneys with a plastic bottle filled with water, that he had been hung upside down, had his head put in a gas mask, from which the air supply was cut off temporarily, and was subjected to electric shocks.

The drive for revenge for such treatment coincided with another push by Islamic insurgents to expand the zone of conflict outward from Chechnya. In July 2002, top Chechen rebels including Aslan Maskhadov and Shamil Basayev held a shura, or conference, in the Chechen town of Duba-Yurt and decided to create diversionary groups in Dagestan, said Abdurashid Magomedov, deputy chief of the Dagestani criminal police.

Soon news began filtering back to police that young men recruited from Dagestani villages bordering Chechnya had spent two to three months in a rebel camp outside Duba-Yurt, where they underwent training in using explosives. Their assignment upon returning home was to attack police and military troops.

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