Russians, Chechens clash ahead of planned offensive

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The Independent Online

Russian forces and Chechen rebels clashed in the foothills of southern Chechnya as Russia prepared for what it called a decisive offensive on separatist strongholds in the mountains.

Russian forces and Chechen rebels clashed in the foothills of southern Chechnya as Russia prepared for what it called a decisive offensive on separatist strongholds in the mountains.

The military sources reported that some 40 rebels were killed in fighting near the southwestern village of Elistanzhi on Tuesday, but gave no information on Russian casualties. The report could not be independently confirmed.

Russian jets and helicopter gunships flew more than 50 combat missions over suspected rebel positions in the mountains during the past 24 hours. The military said that the number of sorties was markedly lower than during recent weeks because its reconnaissance planes are mapping new militant emplacements.

Rebels were digging into position and planting mines along paths leading into the mountains, the military said.

Meanwhile, Russian troops were searching for suspected rebels in four villages in the foothills. Officials said 26 suspects had been detained since Tuesday and that troops also were seizing all cars from the villagers to prevent their use by the separatists.

The searches, along with a regrouping of forces and troop deployment on commanding heights in the region, are part of preparations for a major Russian offensive.

"The troops are preparing for a decisive strike against the rebel bases in the mountains," presidential aide Sergei Yastrzhembsky said Tuesday. Several Russian officials have claimed that the upcoming offensive would finish off the rebels, who abandoned the capital Grozny two weeks ago.

Most of the rebels are believed to have headed south and the Russian military estimates there are up to 8,000 fighters in the mountains.

Federal forces are now seeking to establish control over the strategic Argun and Vedeno gorges that cut through the mountains. Although troops have been fighting rebels in some areas, the main Russian forces have been slow to move in, preferring first to weaken the rebels with air and artillery attacks.

The rebels have carved out well-protected strongholds across the south since the last Chechen war ended in 1996, and the hilly terrain favors their guerrilla tactics.

Moscow sent troops into Chechnya after Chechen-based Islamic militants invaded the neighboring region of Dagestan and allegedly staged a series of apartment bombings that killed about 300 people in Russia.

In recent months, Russian security officials have repeatedly claimed that the militants were planning new terrorist attacks, and have declared security alerts in Moscow and elsewhere.

In the latest such warning, Federal Security Service spokesman Alexander Zdanovich claimed Wednesday that two prominent rebel leaders were planning to hijack an airplane in the republic of Ingushetia, which borders on Chechnya.

Zdanovich said the allegedly planned hijacking was intended to "put pressure on the federal authorities to stop the Russian troop operation in the mountains."

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