Chechens kill 15 Russian paras in ambush

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The Independent Online

Fifteen troopers of the élite 51st Parachute Regiment were killed and six wounded at the weekend when 80 Islamic fighters ambushed their column in Chechnya, the fourth partisan attack in two months.

Fifteen troopers of the élite 51st Parachute Regiment were killed and six wounded at the weekend when 80 Islamic fighters ambushed their column in Chechnya, the fourth partisan attack in two months.

A Kremlin spokesman had earlier claimed "only five" paras died in the two-hour battle, but the Russian Defence Minister, Marshal Igor Sergeyev, was forced to admit the real toll yesterday, in a clear indication that the Russians were still far from pacifying the rebellious Caucasus region.

The Kremlin spokesman later said 20 guerrillas were killed and two captured, and Arab mercenaries had been identified among the attackers. He admitted federal forces had been "surprised again", although he said helicopters supporting the column had "minimised" the losses. Hours before the ambush, Russian troops had captured a cache of guerrilla weapons.

The onset of spring has given the rebels an advantage. Under cover of the new leaves, they can move with less risk of detection than against the bare landscapes of winter.

Mr Putin's decision to punish Chechnya for harbouring terrorists was originally popular with most Russians and helped him to win the presidency. But as each day brings news of fresh casualties, Russians are losing their stomach for the war. The cities of Sergiev Posad, Pskov and Perm have each lost many men in rebel attacks and Tula, home to the Parachute Regiment, is the next to stage a mass funeral.

Mr Putin has again rejected a peace offer from the Chechen leader, Aslan Maskhadov. Some Russian journalists believe the president-elect wishes to avoid appearing weak before his inauguration on 7 May.

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