Police officers and militiamen in Dagestan
© Sputnik / V. Baranets
Police officers and militiamen in Dagestan in September 1999.
Putin seemed to be choking back tears in an emotional recollection of events 20 years ago, when a local militia in Dagestan, Russia took up arms and helped stop a large-scale incursion of Islamist fighters into their homeland.

Dagestan, one of Russia's southern republics, was attacked in August 1999 by hundreds of jihadists from neighboring Chechnya, a part of Russia that was not under Moscow's control at the time and became a hotbed of international terrorism. The invasion was initially successful, but was ultimately fought off with the help of local militias.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who was holding his annual Q&A session on Thursday, recounted his own memories about the events during a conversation with several militia members from the mountainous Dagestani border village of Botlikh. The president was visibly emotional when speaking about the heroism of the Dagestani men during that dark hour.

"People of Dagestan then called me and said: if Russia will not or cannot defend itself and us, give us arms. I also recall how village leaders came to our troops when they arrived and asked: why aren't you firing from artillery. The commander responded: those are your homes; it takes generations to build a home in the mountains. The response shocked me: we don't care, fire!"

He added that people in Botlikh and other parts of Dagestan protected their homeland and all of Russia that month, and that if the terrorists had been allowed to achieve their goals, it would have destabilized the entire southern part of Russia.

Putin was serving as chair of Russia's Security Council and FSB director when the jihadist incursion started, and was appointed prime minister in the middle of the campaign against the terrorists.

During the incursion, some of the bloodiest terrorist attacks in Russia happened. First, a car bomb exploded next to an apartment building in Buynakhsk, Dagestan, where Russian troops and their families were living. Three similar bombings happened in Moscow and Volgodonsk within days. Over 300 people were killed in those four attacks.

The threat mobilized Russia, leading to renewed hostilities in the Chechen Republic, in which Moscow and its local allies prevailed over the separatists, terrorists, and warlords that controlled it.