Chechnya Sets Emergency, Russia Pounds Rebels

By Alkha Tosuyev

GROZNY, Russia (Reuters) - The breakaway region of Chechnya declared a state of emergency Sunday as Russian troops again bombarded Muslim rebels in neighboring Dagestan, on the Black Sea's western coast.

On the ninth day of fighting, Acting Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said in Moscow that ''international terrorists'' were taking part in the rebellion.

Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov, fearing Russia would threaten Chechnya as it pursued the guerrillas in Dagestan, imposed a one-month state of emergency from Monday. The rebels are led by Chechen warlords outside Maskhadov's control.

Maskhadov's decree said the ''party of war'' in Russia wanted revenge for defeat in the 1994-96 war in Chechnya, and to provoke tension in the volatile North Caucasus.

''(They) have created the threat of a new war in the Caucasus and the collapse of previous agreements with the leadership of the Russian Federation and the Chechen Republic,'' it said.

Putin said last week that Russian forces would not balk at going after the rebels inside Chechnya. Chechnya has warned Russia not to do this, and Friday said a Russian armored column had crossed the border and left after around one hour.

Maskhadov's decree imposed a curfew from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. (1900-0300 GMT) and a ban on all media except state-owned television.

It said military units, especially the border guard, should be on alert and declared a partial mobilization of reservists and veterans of the Chechen war.

Putin, in one of his rare interviews since being nominated as premier last Monday, told state-owned RTR TV that ''international terrorists'' were behind the conflict.

''You can hear foreign speech in broadcasts. You can see dark-skinned people,'' he said.

At least one fighter of Jordanian origin is with the rebels.

Putin saw no reason for a critical reaction from Chechnya and said its relations with Moscow were a key to stability in the Northern Caucasus. Chechnya says it is independent but is not recognized by any nation.

Interfax news agency quoted the head of the Russian military press service in the North Caucasus region as saying jets and artillery had been used to clear rebels from strategic heights in Botlikh province, one of the main battle zones, after a 12-hour battle.

The Russian Interior Ministry's spokesman in the Dagestani capital Makhachkala said 21 rebels had been killed during a battle near other villages, along with one paramilitary policeman.

He said two volunteer fighters and six police had been wounded, and that the rebels controlled four villages out of 32 in Botlikh.

Russia says at least 200 guerrillas have been killed in the fighting and Saturday put its losses at 14. The rebels, via an Internet site, said they had killed 130 Russian soldiers and officers and destroyed nine helicopters and one fighter jet.

The statements could not be confirmed. During the Chechen war, both sides gave inflated figures for enemy casualties.

The Chechen fighters are led by Shamil Basayev, known for a spectacular raid on the Russian town of Budyonnovsk during the Chechen war. They have declared a separatist state in Dagestan and called for a holy war of liberation from Moscow.

Interfax quoted the authorities as saying 60 rebels led by Basayev's brother Shirvani had been buried alive when volunteer fighters loyal to Moscow sprung a trap by rolling stones and boulders onto the guerrillas. Shirvani's fate was not known.


Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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