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Russia Continues Chechen Blockade

February 17, 2002

VLADIKAVKAZ, Russia (AP) _ Russian forces extended their blockade of a Chechen town into a third day Saturday, officials said.

The military operation in Starye Atagi, a town south of Grozny, the capital, was launched Thursday to search for suspected rebels believed hiding in the town. Since the operation began, there were two protracted gun battles between federal forces and militants.

Sherip Alikhadzhiyev, head of the area’s local administration, told Interfax news agency that federal forces were refusing to let anyone leave the town.

Human rights groups have strongly criticized such operations, claiming Russian forces engage in looting, torture and murder. Russian officials insist abuses are rare, and the security sweeps are necessary to root out militants hiding in civilian areas.

Moscow claims to control most of this volatile southern republic, but the Russians continue to loose troops daily in hit-and-run attacks and land mine explosions.

Government positions came under attack seven times in the last 24 hours and three servicemen were wounded, said an official in the pro-Moscow Chechen administration. Two soldiers were killed and two wounded when their armored personnel carrier hit a land mine in the Zavodskoy district of Grozny, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

A soldier was killed when detonating an explosive device in Gudermes, the second-largest city in Chechnya, the official said.

Russian troops withdrew from Chechnya in 1996 after a humiliating war, leaving the republic with de facto independence. Federal forces returned in 1999 after Chechnya-based rebels invaded a neighboring Russian republic and after apartment bombings elsewhere in Russia blamed on Chechens killed 300 people.

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