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Dagestan bombs shadow Putin's return to presidency

The twin thundering car bombs that shook the capital of Dagestan and killed at least 13 people were grisly reminders that Vladimir Putin, who came to power a dozen years ago as a hardliner against Caucasus insurgents, will have to confront more violence as he returns to a third term in the Kremlin.

Putin, to be inaugurated as president Monday after spending a four-year sojourn as prime minister due to term limits, largely succeeded in his vulgar vow to wipe out Chechen rebels even if they had to be killed in outhouses.

But the neighboring southern Russian region of Dagestan remains wracked by violence attributed to Islamic insurgents — attacks on police and shootouts with militants take place almost daily.

Unlike the Chechen insurgency, the one in Dagestan has not exploded into full-fledged war. Most of the attacks get little or no attention in Russian news media, making it an almost-forgotten conflict.

Under Putin, the Chechen rebellion was put down, except for an apparently small contingent of holdouts, through a combination of brutality and largesse. Russian artillery barrages turned Grozny, the Chechen capital, into jagged ruins. Soldiers and police hunted down rebels, their supporters — and, many critics say, hapless and innocent civilians. The Kremlin backed Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov's notoriously brutal security force and poured billions of dollars into reconstructing Grozny.

Pacifying Dagestan is a tougher challenge. Approximately the size of Slovakia (or twice the size of the U.S. state of Maryland) and home to more than 100 ethnic groups, Dagestan is three times bigger than Chechnya and has plenty of mountains where militants can hide. Unlike the Chechen wars, the insurgents are not concentrated in any location where Russian forces can unleash their overwhelming firepower.

Russia is seeking investors for a $15 billion project to build ski resorts in Dagestan and other parts of the impoverished and restive Caucasus region, partly in hope that prosperity will calm unrest. But any effects will be years in the future.

"We have to do everything in order to liquidate these vermin in the republic," Dagestan President Magomedsalam Magomedov said Friday, the day after the blasts, a statement that appeared frustrated as well as determined.

Local media reported that up to 20,000 troops would be dispatched to Dagestan, a figure that Magomedov dismissed.

He conceded, however, that his province was sorely lacking in security. Both Chechnya and Dagestan have 18,000 police officers, but Dagestan's population is twice as large.

Authorities said Friday the blasts, which also wounded about 130 people Thursday night, were probably set off by suicide bombers. Both occurred near a traffic police post on the outskirts of the capital, Makhachkala.

But Russian Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev told NTV television that, rather than targeting the police post, the insurgents might have been driving the explosives to downtown Makhachkala for a bombing during the May 9 Victory Day parade.

Caucasus rebels have repeatedly attacked on past Victory Days, most notably in 2004 when Chechen President Akhmad Kadyrov, father of the current leader, was killed with five others in a bomb blast at a celebration in Grozny.

Two years earlier, a bomb blast at a Victory Day parade in the Dagestani city of Kaspiisk killed 43 people; in 2010, roadside bombs killed three police and soldiers in Kaspiisk on the holiday.

In Brussels, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton condemned "the heinous terrorist attacks" in Dagestan and offered her condolences to the victims.

"There can be no justification for such criminal acts," she said.

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Associated Press writer Arsen Mollayev in Makhachkala contributed to this report.