Russian security forces conducted a military-style operation to detain the powerful mayor of Dagestan’s regional capital on murder charges on Saturday, whisking him away in a helicopter to escape his private army of several hundred bodyguards, officials said.
Makhachkala Mayor Said Amirov is a legendary and colorful figure who has wielded vast clout in the Caspian Sea region, which has been destabilized by an Islamist insurgency that has spread across Russia’s North Caucasus after two separatist wars in Chechnya.
Amirov, 59, has served as mayor since 1998 and previously worked as deputy head of the provincial government.
He has survived 15 attempts on his life and lived in a bunker. Amirov has been in a wheelchair since an assassination attempt in 1993. In 1998, a car bomb aimed at him brought down scores of houses and killed 19 people, but he escaped unhurt.
The detention of Amirov could trigger a new wave of instability in Dagestan, a multi-ethnic, mostly Muslim province in southern Russia that lies east of the province of Chechnya. Local politics have been driven by rivalries between dozens of ethnic clans and business groups, and his detention could trigger a battle for the redistribution of power and wealth.
Dagestan has become the epicenter of the Islamist insurgency in the North Caucasus, with daily shootings and bombings of police and other officials.
The suspects in April’s Boston Marathon bombings were ethnic Chechens who once lived in Dagestan, and one of them last year visited the province, where authorities are investigating if he had contact with Islamic militants.
Rasul Temirbekov, a spokesman for the Investigative Committee’s branch in Dagestan, said it took extreme security measures when they moved in to arrest Amirov.
Several streets leading to Amirov’s bunker had been blocked by armored vehicles, and he was flown away in a military helicopter to avoid a battle with his private army. The operation was conducted by officers dispatched from Moscow and other regions in an apparent bid to prevent a leak of information that would tip Amirov off.
Vladimir Markin, the spokesman for the federal Investigative Committee in Moscow, said that Amirov was detained along with more than 10 accomplices.
He said that Amirov is accused of staging the killing of a senior investigator with the local branch of the Investigative Committee in 2011. Markin said that the mayor was flown to Moscow.
Amirov’s nephew was detained in a parallel raid in the city of Kaspiisk.