MOSCOW (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin sought Monday to deflect blame from the Kremlin for a riot in the southern region of Dagestan that targeted a flight from Israel, charging without evidence that Ukrainian agents of Western spy agencies were behind the rampage.
More than 20 people were hurt — none Israelis — in the clashes Sunday night that Putin cast as part of U.S. efforts to weaken Russia.
Hundreds of angry men, some carrying banners with antisemitic slogans, rushed onto the tarmac of the airport in Makhachkala, the capital of the predominantly Muslim region, looking for Israeli passengers on the flight from Tel Aviv.
Police officers and civilians were injured and two of them were in critical condition, regional health authorities said. More than 80 people were detained in the unrest, according to police. Russia’s Investigative Committee has opened a criminal probe on charges of organizing mass unrest.
U.S. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby called Putin’s allegation that Western entities were behind the violence “classic Russian rhetoric.”
“The West had nothing to do with this,” he added, criticizing Putin for not doing more to condemn the violence, which he described as “a chilling demonstration of hate.”
Russia has issued carefully calibrated criticism of both sides in the war between Israel and Hamas, a conflict that is giving Moscow new opportunities to advance its role as a global power broker and challenge Western efforts to isolate it over Ukraine.
Speaking to top government officials in televised comments, Putin said the Israel-Hamas war had been triggered by “the terrorist attack against peaceful citizens of Israel and other countries” but said that the Israeli response indiscriminately targeted civilians “who have nowhere to run and nowhere to hide.”
Video and photos on social media showed some in the crowd waving Palestinian flags and shouting “Allahu akbar!” or “God is great,” as they broke into the airport terminal. Some held handwritten banners saying, “Child killers are not welcome in Dagestan” and “We’re against Jewish refugees.”
Some rushed onto the tarmac Sunday night and surrounded the jet belonging to the Russian carrier Red Wings, only to find it empty. Others stopped a bus carrying passengers from the flight from Israel, including some children who underwent medical treatment and their parents, and started examining their passports. They eventually let them go after some passengers on the bus who had dual Russian and Israeli citizenship showed their Russian passports, according to Russian media reports.
It took the authorities several hours to disperse the mob, which hurled stones at police.
Putin avoided any assessment of the authorities’ response to the airport’s seizure but launched a new attack against the U.S. on Monday, blaming it for sowing chaos in the Middle East and fueling the fighting in Ukraine.
“The ruling elites of the U.S. and its satellites are the main beneficiaries of the global instability,” Putin said. “They are earning their bloody rent from it.”
Without offering evidence, he also accused “agents of Western special services” in Ukraine of using social networks to provoke the rampages in Dagestan to weaken Russia.
“I’m not certain if everyone in the U.S. leadership is aware of that,” he added. “It wouldn’t hurt if they run a probe into what their special services have been doing in Ukraine, trying to inspire pogroms in Russia. They are real scum, it’s impossible to call them otherwise.”
Russia’s state news agency RIA Novosti cited Dagestan Gov. Sergei Melikov as saying that the unrest was coordinated in a Telegram channel run by “traitors” based in Ukraine, with the goal of destabilizing Dagestan and fueling unrest.
Some local Telegram channels had said before the unrest that “refugees from Israel” were coming to Dagestan. Following some of those posts, a crowd reportedly gathered outside a hotel in the Dagestani city of Khasavyurt on Saturday, searching for Israeli nationals staying in the hotel, but left after not finding any.
Following the Dagestan unrest, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said Israel “expects the Russian law enforcement authorities to protect the safety of all Israeli citizens and Jews wherever they may be and to act resolutely against the rioters and against the wild incitement directed against Jews and Israelis.”
The Israeli Ambassador to Moscow, Alexander Ben Zvi, told the RTVI news outlet that no passengers on the flight, which included Israelis, Russians and people with dual citizenship, were hurt.
The Makhachkala airport resumed operations at 2 p.m. Monday. Some Russian airlines offer flights from Israel to Makhachkala with a subsequent connection to Moscow, a cheaper option compared to direct flights.
In the wake of the rampage, Israel’s National Security Council and the Foreign Ministry said they have updated the travel warning to the highest Level 4 for Dagestan and other regions in southern Russia, advising Israelis to avoid visiting them and urging all those currently there to leave.
Associated Press writer Zeke Miller in Washington contributed to this report.