MOSCOW, Jan 10 (Reuters) - Russia vowed to resume its offensive in Chechnya with full force on Monday after a holiday lull during which rebels launched a counter-attack and Russian forces suffered their heaviest reported losses to date. Last Thursday, Moscow called a temporary halt to Russia's attack on the regional capital Grozny to mark Orthodox Christmas and the end of the Moslems' Ramadan fasting period. Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov had urged a similar limited ceasefire.
Although fighting in Grozny did die down, there was little let-up elsewhere. Rebels penetrated Russian lines and struck at three towns Russian forces had controlled for several weeks -- Argun, Gudermes and Shali. Russian military officials said they had repulsed most of the attacks and would impose a curfew.
"From now on we will never again trust their promises, including those of Maskhadov," Colonel-General Viktor Kazantsev told Russian reporters. "There will be no mercy for them."
Itar-Tass news agency quoted the Eastern Group of Russian forces, based in Dagestan region next to Chechnya, as saying it lost 26 men in the past 24 hours. Thirty were wounded.
Russian officials could not immediately confirm the Tass dispatch from Dagestan.
But it was by far the heaviest one-day death toll attributed to Russian forces since the campaign began more than three months ago after a spate of bombings in Russian cities and an assault on Dagestan blamed on Chechen guerrillas. The rebels deny any role in the bombings, in which nearly 300 died.
Both sides have consistently overstated
their opponent's losses and played down their own casualty figures.
Over the weekend some Russian media began to echo Western reports about higher losses among Russia's 100,000-strong contingent, which is battling rebels now mostly encircled in Grozny or holed up in southern mountains.
RUSSIA SAYS CAMPAIGN STILL ON TRACK
Kazantsev said his forces had regained control over the towns which had been partially seized by the Chechens in a surprise offensive over the weekend.
"All attacks have been beaten back. As of today the situation in Shali, Argun and around Mesker-Yurt is under control," he said, without mentioning Gudermes, Chechnya's second biggest town which was also attacked at the weekend.
Argun and Mesker-Yurt are 12 km (7.5 miles) east of Grozny and Shali is about 22 km (13.5 miles) southeast of the city. Gudermes is 35 km (22 miles) east of Grozny.
The towns were given up without a fight by the rebels more than a month ago as they were retreating towards the mountains under a methodical Russian onslaught in the Chechen lowlands.
The weekend rebel action was the first big counter-attack since Moscow sent troops into Chechnya in late September in a second military attempt to bring the rebel territory to heel after a failed war in 1994-96.
Moscow rushed reinforcements to the area and both sides reported fierce clashes throughout the day on Sunday.
Kazantsev said despite the setback the
operation in Chechnya would be finished within two months, as previously
Wrapping up the military campaign before March 26, the date of the next presidential election, would give Acting President Vladimir Putin a good chance to score a decisive victory.
Putin is already favourite to win, largely because of his tough stance on Chechnya. Any setbacks for Moscow in the rebel region may dent his popular image, although few doubt he is likely to win.
Defence Minister Igor Sergeyev, taking a similar line to Kazantsev, said troops would resume attacks against rebels in full after the partial self-imposed lull over the holiday period, RIA news agency reported.
"What truce can there be after this mean, treacherous strike?" he was quoted as saying after meeting Putin.
Russians have said their main concern in the campaign is to keep casualties among troops and civilians to a minimum.
RIA quoted Kazantsev as saying drastic measures would be introduced on all territory under Russian control to prevent new rebel forays.
He said a curfew would be in place throughout Chechnya and all movement would be forbidden during night hours. He also said soldiers would only treat women, children and the elderly as internally displaced persons -- refugees -- in Chechnya.
"All the rest will be arrested and dealt with separately," he said, indicating all Chechen men of fighting age would now be under suspicion of siding with rebels.
Hundreds of thousands of Chechens have fled the fighting to the neighbouring Russian province of Ingushetia. Moscow has been trying to relocate them back to Chechnya, offering them temporary dwelling in areas under its control.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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