Russia moves to cut losses

RUSSIA ADMITTED yesterday it was being forced to review its efforts to expel Muslim separatists from mountain villages in Dagestan after Russian forces suffered heavy losses at the hands of the rebels But it claimed it had stopped the guerrillas from creating a separate Muslim state in the region

The Russians said they had lost a total of 40 men. The deputy interior minister, Igor Zubov, put guerrilla dead at 400-500. "Today we can say our strategic goals have been reached," he told a news conference after returning from the battle zone between Dagestan and the neighbouring rebel republic of Chechnya.

But he acknowledged that operations to force the rebels out of inaccessible mountain villages were producing mixed results. "The use of artillery and air strikes and other weapons in situ is not effective enough," he said. He claimed rebels had fortified positions on the hills around the villages, which nestled in long, narrow valleys.

"They could be taken by a direct assault but it would bring big losses," he said. "We have decided to make sure our losses come to a minimum."

On Wednesday Russian troops aborted an attack on the village of Tando, which the Defence Ministry said had claimed four of its soldiers. Mr Zubov said troops were regrouping after the failed assaults and would concentrate on destroying rebel communications and supply routes. Volunteer Dagestanis fought on the Russian side and Mr Zubov said about 2,000 of these had been armed with hunting rifles by the federal forces.

The rebels continued to dispute the Russian claims, saying that they still controlled several strategic heights and that Moscow's statements about the battlefield successes were "100 per cent lies".

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