In a fresh setback for Russian forces in Chechnya, ten Interior Ministry soldiers were killed in a battle with guerrillas in the southern mountains, a Russian military spokesman said yesterday.
The clash, which took place on Wednesday near the village of Serzhen-Yurt, is the latest in a series of Chechen ambushes on Russian road convoys.
According to the Russian account, a unit of Interior Ministry troops led by Lt Col Nikolai Shevelyov spotted a band of guerrillas and pursued them, but were then attacked from the rear. Lt Col Shevelyov was killed in the fighting.
The Russians claim that the bodies of 25 Chechens were found on the battlefield.
The Chechen account of the battle is somewhat different. They say that only one Chechen fighter died in a simple ambush which killed 20 Russian soldiers and destroyed three armoured vehicles. They also claim to have killed 30 Russians in an earlier ambush last Sunday, but this has not been confirmed by Moscow.
Whatever the exact truth about the number of dead at Serzhen-Yurt, the ambush is in keeping with recent Chechen tactics. Aslan Maskhadov, the Chechen President, said in an interview that he had told his men "to break up into small units but maintain reliable contacts between them".
General Valery Manilov, the Russian First Deputy Chief of Staff, said yesterday that Russian forces had lost 37 men dead and 63 wounded in the past week. He said that since August last year 2,181 Russian soldiers have been killed and 6,338 wounded in the fighting in the North Caucasus.
Moscow has been trying to quell popular suspicions that the real casualty figures are higher than announced.
But the figures announced yesterday do not add up. Gen Manilov said that of 37 men killed, only five were from the Interior Ministry and the police, though only hours earlier he had admitted that 10 Interior Ministry soldiers had been killed at Serzhen-Yurt.
As the guerrilla war grinds on, Russia continues to pour cold water on speculation that it will open talks with Mr Maskhadov, who was elected president of Chechnya in 1997.
Sergei Yastrzhemsky, the presidential aide who acts as official spokesman on Chechnya, said: "Maskhadov has failed to provide leadership in Chechnya. In three years not only did he fail to rein in the terrorist [Shamil] Basayev, but has even effectively become his accomplice."
Mr Maskhadov's present degree of authority is unclear.
A difficulty for Moscow is that it has not been able - and has scarcely tried - to find credible Chechen leaders with whom it can negotiate. At the same time, it will be difficult for Vladimir Putin, the president elect, to open talks with Mr Maskhadov after denouncing him as a lackey of "terrorists".
* A top Nato commander condemned a spate of attacks against Russian soldiers serving with the alliance in Kosovo yesterday, saying that violence was not the answer to solving the province's many troubles.
Lt Gen Juan Ortuno's statement came after a Russian soldier was found dead in the central part of the country.
"An attack against one soldier is an attack against us all. We are one force and such acts will not be tolerated," he said.
In other incidents, shots were fired at tents housing Russian soldiers in Brocna, 50 kilometres (32 miles) west of Pristina late on Wednesday. Russian soldiers returned fire, but no injuries were reported.Reuse content