(Reuters)Â – A scrawny 15-year-old this summer became the first from his deeply religious Muslim village in Russia’s southern Dagestan province to die fighting alongside rebels inÂ Syria.
Some regard him as a martyr for joining the rebels in the fight against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad who is supported byÂ Russia.
Moscow now fears that hundreds of Russian-born militants it says are fighting inÂ SyriaÂ will return experienced in warfare to join an insurgency in Dagestan and its other North Caucasus provinces by militants fighting for an Islamic state.
Violence in the region claims lives almost daily. Fifteen men from Novosasitli alone have died in shootouts with Russian forces in the last four years, locals say.
Analysts say fighters could also try to strike during the 2014 Winter Olympics in February in nearby Sochi. President Vladimir Putin, who has staked his reputation on theÂ Games, has said militants returning from Syria pose “a very real” threat and signed off on a law this month to jail any who come home.The militant groups did not come out of nowhere, and they will not vanish into thin air,” Putin said on Sept 23.
A photograph, sent by fighters, of the scarred, skinny corpse of the local 15-year-old killed there is still being passed around the village. Stones are placed over his eyelids. In the comment thread under a photo of the smooth-chinned youth on aÂ FacebookÂ page he is called a hero and a martyr.
In June, Russia’s FSB security service said 200 Russians were fighting with al Qaeda affiliated groups in Syria. By September, it said as many as 400 Russians were there. “They will come back, and that poses a huge threat,” FSB deputy director Sergei Smirnov, said on September 20.
Russian estimates of the number of fighters may not be accurate, experts say, because of the large numbers of its citizens studying abroad or who have emigrated to Europe, Jordan,Â TurkeyÂ and elsewhere. Some gained skill and experience, highly-valued by the Syrian rebels, in fighting the separatist wars in Chechnya in 1994-96 and 1999-2000, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
Experts say the number of Russians in Syria may be higher.
This summer the Chechen-born Caucasus insurgent leader Doku Umarov urged fighters to use “maximum force” to sabotage the Olympics. His cry was echoed by fighters in Syria, who called on Muslims in the North Caucasus to wage jihad at home rather than joining them. “For such a jihad, one, two people is enough,” a Russian-speaking rebel says in a YouTube address from Syria dated July 30, flanked by seven camouflage-clad fighters armed with heavy machine guns and a grenade launcher.
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