MOSCOW — Russia began arming local volunteers in Dagestan on Wednesday, handing out firearms to hundreds of retired soldiers in a desperate effort to cut off a rebel incursion into the southern republic before it becomes a guerrilla war.
In the central square of Dagestan's capital, Makhachkala, about 300 irregulars--wearing civilian clothes or pieces of uniforms--shouldered their weapons and boarded buses for the combat zone along the region's border with the rebel republic of Chechnya.
Russia, which effectively lost its last war to Chechen guerrillas, seems to be trying to fight them this time in part by forming its own quasi-guerrilla army in a region already full of gunmen and all types of weaponry.
"Thank you, brothers, sons, for defending us and our children, our villages," a woman displaced by the fighting told the departing men in TV footage seen in Moscow. "May not a single hair fall from your heads. Allah willing, you will all return safe and sound."
Russian officials continued to assert that they were gaining ground against the rebels, whose numbers they estimated Wednesday at 1,500.
"The situation remains complicated," said Russian Defense Minister Igor D. Sergeyev. "But there are a few indicators of improvement."
Official reassurances notwithstanding, Russia appears to have made little headway in suppressing the 5-day-old rebellion.
In TV footage broadcast Wednesday, the most powerful warlord to emerge during the Chechen war, Shamil Basayev, acknowledged that he is the one leading the fighters who crossed into Dagestan from Chechnya on Saturday.
"There is no force on Earth capable of stopping the Muslim fighters other than the Almighty, who guides them in this sacred war," Basayev said. "During the past 24 hours alone, control has been established over three Dagestani villages, bringing the total number of communities under our control to 14."
Basayev also claimed to have shot down one Russian aircraft and destroyed four helicopters and nine armored vehicles.
His assertions contradict the official Russian version: that the rebels hold only about half a dozen villages and that Russian troops have succeeded in pushing them back from some positions.
Vladimir Kolesnikov, Russia's first deputy interior minister, said that 10 Russian service personnel had been killed and 27 wounded in the fighting. He estimated that dozens of insurgents had been killed.
It is practically impossible to verify either version of events. There are few journalists in Dagestan because of a wave of kidnappings sponsored by ransom-seeking Chechen warlords.
The crisis is a dangerous challenge for Russia's new acting prime minister, Vladimir V. Putin, who has vowed to end it within two weeks. He called an urgent session Wednesday of the country's top security officers, who decided against imposing a state of emergency in Dagestan.
Putin denounced the insurgents as "terrorists."
"They are behaving like cowards and rarely engage in direct combat with our formations," Putin said.
Basayev was one of Chechnya's central commanders during its two-year war for independence from Russia, which ended without a political settlement and the republic out of Moscow's control.
In the past, Basayev has enjoyed the support of Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov. However, the Chechen government has insisted repeatedly that it has no connection to the current uprising.
For his part, Basayev described himself and his fighters as "volunteers." He said the rebels have appointed another prominent warlord, known as Khattab, to be their top military commander.
Basayev's fighters are believed to be members of a militant and puritanical Islamic sect, the Wahhabis, and seek to establish an independent state governed by Islamic law.
It is not clear how much support the rebels enjoy in Dagestan, a region with a strongly pro-Moscow government and dozens of competing ethnic groups. The strong showing at the public mustering in Makhachkala suggested that at least in the capital, many Dagestanis oppose the guerrillas.
The volunteers there ranged from recently discharged conscripts to middle-aged former officers. In TV footage, an elderly pensioner wearing an army cap exhorted them to fight the rebels and "defend the honor, dignity, territorial integrity and constitutional order of our republic."