Chechen fighters kill nine captured Russian soldiers

Chechen rebels said yesterday that they had killed nine Russian paramilitary police captured in an ambush after Moscow refused to hand over a colonel accused of raping and murdering a Chechen woman.

Chechen rebels said yesterday that they had killed nine Russian paramilitary police captured in an ambush after Moscow refused to hand over a colonel accused of raping and murdering a Chechen woman.

The men were captured when a special-forces unit was wiped out in an attack by guerrillas near Zhani-Vedeno, in the mountains of southern Chechnya. Forty-three of those killed came from Perm, in the Urals. The Chechens had threatened to kill their prisoners unless Russia handed over Colonel Yuri Budanov within three days. Yesterday the Chechen website said: "The captives were executed at 8am. The Chechen side is ready to exchange the corpses of the Omon (special police) from Perm for wounded mujahideen (Chechen fighters)."

The murders, which Russia denounced as a publicity stunt, underline the ferocity of the fighting in the mountains as Russian forces try to break up the main guerrilla detachments before the spring foliage provides them with cover from air attacks.

Shamil Basayev, a leading rebel commander, said that the guerrillas would start to counter-attack from 15 April.

Although the rebels suffered heavy losses in the mountains, they have shown by ambushes in the past six weeks that they can still defeat isolated Russian units, usually numbering 100 men, and prevent reinforcements reaching them.

Despite these setbacks, Vladimir Putin, the Russian president-elect, said yesterday that all was going to plan, although he expected guerrilla counter-attacks after the snow melts in the mountains. Russian military headquarters was quoted as saying "the movement of fighters in Chechnya has become increasingly active. The fighters are shooting at lookout posts, checkpoints and sub-divisions of the forces even in daylight."

In the last Chechnya war, in 1994-96, the Russians pinned down the guerrillas in the mountains in winter but could not stop them moving back into the plains around Grozny, the capital, once leaves on the trees gave them cover.

The increasing savagery of the war makes it less likely Russia will accept effective international monitoring of rights abuses in Chechnya. The Council of Europe is to decide today on Russia's continued membership after a visit to Chechnya by Mary Robinson, the UN human rights commissioner, who was unable to gain access to the "filtration" camps she had asked to see.

Russia has 93,000 troops in Chechnya but is short of well- trained units and specialised equipment such as night sights. The rebels have lacked food and medicines since their retreat from Grozny. Once the snow melts along the border with the neighbouring republic of Georgia, they will hope to bring in fresh supplies.

* The Russian security services arrested an American on spying charges in Moscow in the latest of a rash of espionage cases involving the countries.

The FSB security service said the man, whom it did not name, managed a private company but had previously worked as a career intelligence officer. A Russian who specialised in defence development work was also arrested.

"The evidence suggests the foreigner has for a long time been establishing contacts with Russian scientists in Moscow, Novosibirsk and other cities with a view to collecting state secrets", the FSB said. Russian radio that last year 65 foreign intelligence agents were detained with 30 Russians working for them. The US embassy refused to comment.

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