Russia claims rout of rebels in mountain area, but fighting continues

A Russian commander claimed Friday that a major group of Chechen rebels was routed in fierce fighting in the republic's mountains, while Russian jets intensely bombed Komsomolskoye to try to drive out rebels who seized the village.

A Russian commander claimed Friday that a major group of Chechen rebels was routed in fierce fighting in the republic's mountains, while Russian jets intensely bombed Komsomolskoye to try to drive out rebels who seized the village.

Lt. Gen. Gennady Troshev, a top commander for Chechnya, said a rebel grouping of about 2,500 fighters was defeated after battles around the village of Ulus-Kert, where fighting had raged for about two weeks.

He said the rebels were under the leadership of two of Chechnya's most notorious warlords, Shamil Basayev and Khattab, who uses one name only.

"Bands of small number still remain, but the so-called armed forces (of rebels) do not exist any more," he said, according to the news agency ITAR-Tass. But small rebel groups have been able to mount costly hit-and-run attacks on Russian forces.

The rebels who seized Komsomolskoye on Sunday, embarrassing Russian forces who claimed to have the rebels blocked, have reportedly broken into small formations under a relentless Russian assault that has left the village in ruins.

But despite repeated statements that Komsomolskoye was about to fall, the small rebel groups have stalled the Russians with fierce resistance.

Under a sunny spring sky, tanks and howitzers in nearby fields fired salvo after salvo into Komsomolskoye, in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains, to prevent rebels from breaking out.

Russian commanders said the rebels were concentrated in a southern part of Komsomolskoye. But soldiers who were searching house-to-house for militants Friday said rebel resistance was still intense. They said at least 11 Russian troops had been killed in this week's fighting.

The battle for Komsomolskoye, which began when Chechens seized the village Sunday, underlines Russia's inability to rout Chechnya's militants after six months of war, even though Russian troops outnumber them and have superior weapons.

After keeping some 1,000 residents of Komsomolskoye herded in a field on the outskirts of the village during three days of round-the-clock shelling, the military Friday permitted the civilians to go north to the town of Urus-Martan.

Almost all the houses in Komsomolskoye have been razed or destroyed. Some have been hit in the Russian air and artillery assault; others looked intact from the outside, but were actually burned out. Residents claim Russian troops looted the homes then torched them to cover up their crime.

Russian forces control most of Chechnya, and have focused their offensive in the southern mountains since thousands of rebels abandoned Grozny last month.

Commanders want to block rebels from launching attacks in Russian-held flatland areas. Such attacks have already caused heavy Russian losses, including an ambush in Grozny that killed 20 Russian troops last week.

An estimated 200-300 rebels are still in Grozny even after more than a month of Russian occupation, according to Valery Manilov, deputy head of the armed forces General Staff.

Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev and other commanders admitted Friday that a rebel ambush in Ulus-Kert last week killed at least 85 paratroopers. Russian officials initially denied such a raid had occurred.

Accounts of the attack released Friday varied. Sergeyev told reporters the paratroopers were killed overnight Feb. 29-March 1. Deputy commander of the paratroop force, Nikolai Staskov, said they were killed over four days, from Feb. 29 to March 3, according to Interfax.

Overall, 1,556 Russian troops have been killed since the ground operation in Chechnya began, Manilov said Friday. Soldiers, rights groups and rebels say the real death toll is higher.

Russia began its ground campaign in Chechnya in September to fight Islamic rebels who attacked the neighboring republic of Dagestan in August.

In Moscow, a delegation from the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe prepared to travel to Chechnya on Saturday to investigate complaints of human rights violations in Russia's military campaign.

The nine-member delegation met Friday with parliamentary leaders and the emergencies minister, the ITAR-Tass news agency reported.

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