Russians Battle Chechen Rebels
SLEPTSOVSKAYA, Russia (AP) _ Russian troops fought Chechen rebels Sunday for control of a strategic gorge in Chechnya’s southern mountains while Russian warplanes continued their campaign to wipe out guerrilla bases.
Federal troops have taken control of the Vedeno gorge and the fighting has shifted to the Argun gorge, the North Caucasus military command told the Interfax news agency.
Several villages where rebels were believed to be hiding had been encircled, the news agency said.
Since Russian forces claimed control of the breakaway republic’s capital Grozny after a rebel exodus early in February, the military has increasingly focused on the mountains, where up to 8,000 rebels are believed to be based among the rugged, snowy slopes.
Despite difficult weather conditions, Russian warplanes, accompanied by helicopter gunships flew more than 100 missions in Chechnya over the past 24 hours, targeting the Argun and Vedeno gorges, Interfax said Sunday.
The military command said that the attacks wiped out 18 rebel bases and strongholds and destroyed two communication stations, according to Interfax.
The army claims that Russian forces have seized nearly all of the commanding heights of the two gorges, which extend deep into the mountains and are believed to be important supply routes for the fighters.
Russia’s NTV television, quoting the federal command, said Sunday that the rebels are planning to stage large-scale terrorist operations in Chechen areas that the Russians claim to have liberated.
The guerrilla campaign has already begun, and each terrorist operation may involve from 300 to 500 rebels, NTV said.
Although Russia claims to control most of Chechnya after nearly five months of fighting, rebels last week ambushed two military trains and attacked federal units, demonstrating that they can still inflict bloody damage on Russian forces.
Russia sent troops into Chechnya in September after Chechen-based Islamic militants twice invaded the neighboring region of Dagestan.