Russian troops attack Chechen raiders

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The Independent Online

Agence France-Presse

Argun - Russian troops attacked Chechen rebels who seized key buildings in the town of Argun, throwing the entire Chechnya peace process into doubt. Heavy artillery and helicopter rocket fire could be heard in the area around the police station and neighbouring buildings which were seized by hundreds of Chechen rebel fighters on Sunday.

Exchanges of fire indicated close-quarter fighting. The noise went on for about three hours, well after Russian authorities in Chechnya announced a successful conclusion to the operation. Residents said civilians were trapped in the besieged neighbourhood and later reports said fighting was spreading.

The leader of the raid, Alaudi Khamzatov, said he had 400 men and that he had been ordered to go back and take control in Argun, 10 miles east of Grozny, by Chechnya's separatist President Dzhokhar Dudayev. Argun was captured by the Russians in March after four months of intensive fighting. Mr Khamzatov was one of the Chechen leaders.

On 30 July, a military accord was reached under which the Chechens were to disarm and most Russian troops were to pull out. But few of the conditions have been fulfiled. Vladimir Yanchenko, the Russian spokesman in Grozny, called the raid on Argun "a gross violation of the military accord". But the Chechen military leader Aslan Maskhadov, who is one of the architects of the peace process, denied on Russian television that the fighters were violating the accord.

"The only thing that happened was that the fighters had gone back to their homes as agreed to in the accord.

The Russian military authorities were apparently informed that the town had been occupied by the fighters.

"The Russian military forces encircled the town and other fighters came to help those with Khamzatov," he said.

Sandor Meszaros, head of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which is mediating the peace talks, called for peace before the battle began.

A Russian ultimatum to surrender by midday passed without incident.