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Hundreds stormed an airport in Russia's Dagestan, looking for passengers from Israel

A crowd swarms the airfield of the airport in Makhachkala, capital of Dagestan in southern Russia, on Sunday night.
A crowd swarms the airfield of the airport in Makhachkala, capital of Dagestan in southern Russia, on Sunday night.

Russian police briefly closed an airport in Dagestan, a republic in Russia's far south, after hundreds of people stormed the grounds on Sunday, searching for a plane carrying passengers arriving from Tel Aviv.

At least 20 people were injured at the airport in Makhachkala, the Dagestani capital, including nine police officers, the local interior ministry said in a statement posted to Telegram. Two people were hospitalized in grave condition.

Roughly 60 people were arrested, with local officials vowing to open a criminal investigation to hold all rioters responsible. The airport had fully reopened as of Monday, but flights from Tel Aviv are to be temporarily rerouted to other cities, the Russian Aviation authority reported.

Mediazona, an independent Russian media outlet, reported that the mob was responding toa flurry of messages on Telegram saying the plane arriving from Tel Aviv was carrying "Jewish refugees."

Several videos posted to social media on Sunday appear to show crowds surrounding planes on the tarmac. Some can be seen carrying Palestinian flags, shouting anti-Semitic phrases and roaming the terminal, asking arriving passengers to show their passports to verify their nationality, according to translations from news outlets like the Associated Press.

In one video, the mob appears to confront an airport worker near a plane from the Russian operator Red Wings. The worker tells them the plane is empty and identifies himself as Muslim, The New York Times reported.

In another, which appeared to be recorded inside the plane, a steward can be heard telling passengers to remain calm and to keep aircraft doors closed. "There is an angry crowd," the voice says. "It's quite possible that we will get caught."

The riot unfolded as the Israeli military intensified ground operations in Gaza, part of its so-called "second phase" of the war with the militant group Hamas.

As the death toll from the conflict continued to rise, tens of thousands of people gathered in New York City, London, Madrid, Casablanca, Istanbul, Islamabad and other cities over the weekend to take part in pro-Palestinian protests, calling for a cease-fire.

Russian leaders, too, have called for a mediated end to the conflict, while tilting toward support of the Palestinians. For the Kremlin, fighting in the Middle East could also distract from Russia's own war in Ukraine.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office said on Sunday that Israel "expects the Russian law enforcement authorities to protect the safety of all Israeli citizens and Jews, wherever they may be."

Dagestan is a predominantly Muslim republic in Russia's North Caucuses. Much of its Jewish population emigrated to Israel following the collapse of the Soviet Union, but family and business ties remain strong with the small Jewish community which remains.

Messages from Dagestani leaders repeatedly expressed support for the Palestinians while still calling for calm.

"Federal authorities and international organizations are making every effort to bring about a cease-fire against Gaza civilians," read a statement from the regional government posted to Telegram. "We urge residents of the republic not to succumb to the provocations of destructive groups and not to create panic in society."

In a similar tone, the Kremlin on Monday blamed the riots on "outside interference," with spokesman Dmitry Peskov saying bad actors from the West had spread information to divide Russians, according to a report from the Associated Press.

Russian President Vladimir Putin will hold a meeting with top security officials to discuss the cause of the events, Peskov told reporters.

RIA Novosti, a Russian state news agency, cited the Dagestan governor as saying the unrest was coordinated on Telegram by "traitors" based in Ukraine.

Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelenskyy pointed to the riots as another example of Russia's aggressive brand of nationalism.

"This is not an isolated incident in Makhachkala, but rather part of Russia's widespread culture of hatred toward other nations, which is propagated by state television, pundits, and authorities," Zelenskyy wrote on X, the social media site formerly known as Twitter.

NPR's Becky Sullivan contributed reporting.

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Emily Olson
Emily Olson is on a three-month assignment as a news writer and live blog editor, helping shape NPR's digital breaking news strategy.