Five killed in gunbattle near Chechnya

Security forces battled gunmen holed up in a mountainous forest east of Chechnya for a second day today and at least five officers were killed, regional officials said. An unknown number of militants were also killed.

The fighting in the southern districts of Dagestan was some of the fiercest to hit the poor, volatile North Caucasus republic in years.

State-run TV showed dozens of members of the security forces and vehicles perched on hillsides outside the Karabudakhkentsky district village of Kakashura.

Helicopter gunships were shown firing missiles into a forest where police said between 10 and 15 heavily armed gunmen were located, not far from the border with Georgia and Azerbaijan.

Three Interior Ministry soldiers were killed Friday, bringing the death toll among police in two days of fighting to five, Dagestani Interior Ministry spokesman Mark Tolchinsky said. One of those killed was a helicopter gunner who was fatally shot Thursday.

Three police have also been wounded, he said.

An unknown number of gunmen were believed wounded or killed, officials said.

The police action, which began Wednesday, came after officials in the regions complained to regional authorities about the presence of the gunmen.

Underscoring the seriousness of the fighting, state-run TV also prominently showed a meeting between Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Dagestan's leader, Mukhu Aliev.

"I'm convinced that despite all the complications the police work will be completed successfully," Putin said.

Meanwhile, in the Dagestani capital, Makhachkala, police fatally shot four men Friday who failed to stop their car at a checkpoint and began shooting at officers, city police spokesman Shamil Guseinov said.

The fighting is the latest round of violence to plague the North Caucasus, pitting criminal gangs, Islamic militants or feuding clans against one another or against government and police forces.

Islamic-inspired rebels sparked two wars in Chechnya over the past 15 years, but any large-scale insurgency ended years ago. Still, Chechnya still sees occasional hit-and-run attacks on government troops and the violence has spilled over into neighboring regions such as Dagestan or Kabardino-Balkaria.

A three-hour shoot-out yesterday north of the capital of Kabardino-Balkaria left four gunmen killed.