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Moscow blames outside forces, Ukraine, for Dagestan riot

By AFP - Oct 31,2023 - Last updated at Oct 31,2023

This frame grab taken from video footage posted on the Telegram channel @askrasul on Sunday shows protestors on the apron area of an airport in Makhachkala. A mob looking for Israelis and Jews overran an airport in Russia's Caucasus republic of Dagestan on Sunday, after rumours spread that a flight was arriving from Israel. (AFP photo) 

MAKHACHKALA, Russia — Russia on Monday blamed "external interference" and singled out Ukraine for a riot in Muslim-majority Dagestan, which saw crowds of angry men overrunning an airport as they looked for Israeli passengers.

The mob descended onto Makhachkala airport Sunday evening, barging through barriers and taking over the runway, in an attempt to encircle a plane that had flown in from Israel.

Authorities said 60 people had been arrested, suspected of violently storming the airport and seeking to attack Jews.

The airport reopened Monday, but authorities reported some damage and an airline said its flights to Israel in the coming days were cancelled.

The Kremlin announced President Vladimir Putin would gather top advisers and spy chiefs later Monday to discuss the "West's attempts to use the events in the Middle East to split Russian society".

Moscow also accused Ukraine, which it has been fighting for more than 20 months, of orchestrating the riot.

Russia regularly blames domestic unrest on external, usually Western,  forces.

"Yesterday's events at Makhachkala airport are, to a large extent, the result of external interference," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.

"Against the backdrop of TV footage showing the horrors of what is happening in the Gaza Strip, the deaths of people, children, old people, it is very easy for enemies to take advantage of and provoke the situation," Peskov told reporters on Monday.

Russia's foreign ministry later singled out Kyiv.

There was no immediate reaction from Kyiv to the allegations and Ukraine’s foreign ministry did not immediately respond to an AFP request to comment.


 ‘Sow discord’ 


Russia’s Orthodox leader Patriarch Kirill also saw outside interference, condemning the violence as a bid to “sow discord” between Russia’s Jews and Muslims.

“I have no doubt that forces who provoked this incident will stop at nothing to cause disorder in our country,” the powerful cleric and Kremlin ally said.

The same day of the airport riot, Russian state media reported that a Jewish centre in another North Caucasus region — Kabardino-Balkaria — was set on fire.

The mountainous North Caucasus has had a Jewish community for centuries.

The day after the riot, AFP saw a police car with several officers outside Makhachkala’s synagogue.

The violence also prompted Israel to call on Russia to protect its citizens and Jews.

Outside a Moscow synagogue, people were shaken but unsurprised by the events, given rising global tensions over the conflict between Israel and Hamas.

“Political events should not set fire to our common home,” Ariel Razbegayev, the 37-year-old director of the Moscow Choral Synagogue, told AFP.

Prominent figures in Dagestan have spoken in support of Palestine and against Israel since the October 7 Hamas attacks on Israel.


‘Stab in the back’ 


Rumours spread on Sunday that a Telegram channel owned by a former Russian lawmaker who now lives in Ukraine, Ilya Ponomarev, was behind the protests.

He has previously provided financial support to the Telegram channel called Utro Dagestan (Dagestan Morning) which called for protests at the airport on Sunday, independent media had reported.

Russia’s foreign ministry said Kyiv had used Ponomarev — granted Ukrainian citizenship in 2019 — to orchestrate the protests, accusing its enemy of “information-sabotage”.

Ponomarev’s spokesperson has not responded to AFP requests for comment.

The governor of Dagestan, Sergei Melikov, was also quick to find a Ukrainian trace.

He said the riots were instigated by social media posts from Utro Dagestan, run by “traitors” working from Ukraine.

He called the riot a “stab in the back” of Dagestani soldiers fighting in Ukraine.

According to independent reports, Dagestan has sent proportionately more men to fight in Ukraine than many ethnic Russian regions.

He called on his people not to succumb to “provocations” over events in Israel and Gaza.

“All Dagestanis empathise with the suffering of victims by the actions of unrighteous people and politicians and pray for peace in Palestine,” he said, vowing punishment.

“But what happened at our airport is outrageous and should receive the appropriate assessment from law enforcement.”

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