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Russians Bombard Southern Chechnya

March 4, 2000

STARIYE ATAGI, Russia (AP) _ Federal troops battled rebel forces along Chechnya’s southern Argun Gorge on Saturday, and the Russian military said both sides were suffering significant casualties.

Despite Russia’s earlier claims to controlling much of the gorge, fighting raged Saturday in villages in and around the canyon. The clashes were accompanied by incessant salvos of Russian artillery and the roar of warplanes heading farther south to bomb suspected rebel positions.

The strategic Argun Gorge cuts south from Russian-occupied regions in Chechnya’s north to rebel-controlled territories in the mountains. The militants have many bases hidden on the slopes, and move supplies and reinforcements along the gorge.

At least 50 Russian servicemen were killed in the area during the past week, the Interfax news agency quoted unidentified military sources as saying Saturday.

The sources said Russian and Chechen forces were suffering ``considerable″ casualties in fighting around Ulus-Kert _ a village east of the Argun Gorge and the site of some of the bloodiest battles Saturday.

Col. Gen. Georgy Shpak, the Russian paratroops commander, said Saturday that 12 of his troops and hundreds of rebels had been killed in recent days around the gorge.

``We’re seeing the heaviest fighting ... and several losses,″ he told Russia’s RTR television. But he denied reports that 70 paratroopers had been killed in the past two days.

Federal troops were suffering losses in a battle with some 500 militants near the village of Selmentauzen, halfway between the Argun and Vedeno gorges, according to the office of the top presidential aide on Chechnya, Sergei Yastrzhembsky. The office refused Saturday to provide numbers of casualties.

Chechen rebels have been weakened by a half-year of heavy bombing and shelling, but remain a powerful force capable of staging painful attacks on the Russians.

Russian Interior Minister Vladimir Rushailo flew to Chechnya on Saturday to investigate a bloody rebel attack on a column of Russian Interior Ministry troops in the Chechen capital, Grozny, on Thursday.

The casualty toll was uncertain, with estimates ranging between 20 and 37 Russian troops killed.

Acting President Vladimir Putin and other officials blamed the attack on inefficiency by federal military commanders. The Russian army has claimed to have Grozny under control since Feb. 6.

Rushailo told reporters that commanders ``responsible for this tragedy will be subject to a most harsh punishment, up to criminal responsibility.″

Igor Sukhov, a private who was wounded in the attack, described the attack from his hospital bed Saturday. ``To lose 20 people in three hours _ it’s too much,″ he said on RTR television. The attack ``was clearly planned to the last detail.″

Forty-eight Chechens have been detained on suspicion of taking part in the ambush, officials at the Russian Interior Ministry branch in North Caucasus said Saturday, according to Interfax.

Russian forces in Chechnya routinely seize fighting-age Chechen men, accusing them of being militants. Many are sent to detention camps, where inmates claim they are beaten and tortured in order to extract confessions.

Russian officials deny the torture allegations.

Despite intense international pressure, Russia refuses to negotiate with Chechnya’s separatist government, and has issued a warrant for the arrest of Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov on charges of leading an armed rebellion, Interfax reported.

Meanwhile, two Polish biologists who were held hostage in Chechnya flew to Moscow on Saturday prior to their return home.

The biologists, Ewa Marchwinska-Wyrwal and Zofia Fiszer-Malanowska, were seized in August 1999 while working in the Russian republic of Dagestan, which borders Chechnya to the east.

The women were freed Friday in an operation by Russia’s GUBOP anti-organized crime agency in the town of Shatoi in the Argun Gorge.

One Russian serviceman was killed when he stepped on a mine during the rescue operation, Russia’s RTR television reported Saturday.

Marchwinska-Wyrwal said she and her colleague were held by two Chechen brothers, and were taken from Dagestan to various places around Chechnya.

More than 1,000 people have been kidnapped in and around Chechnya over the past three years, most of them taken by criminal gangs seeking ransom money.

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