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About 40 Russian soldiers have been killed in Chechnya after launching an attempt to take the western town of Bamut, a former strategic missile base where rebels have for months successfully resisted Russian efforts to seize it. Reports indicated that Russia has mounted a drive to take the town - further undermining President Boris Yeltsin's pledge in March to end major military operations in the republic and to search for a settlement.

Although the casualty figures were vague, they suggest that the fighting at Bamut has taken the heaviest toll on Russian troops since last month, when the Chechens ambushed a convoy, killing more than 70 federal troops. The losses caused a furore among the Russian generals, which threatened to derail Mr Yeltsin's re-election campaign. The rebels appear to have taken heavy losses too. An unconfirmed independent Russian television report said that as many as 120 rebels were killed.