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Russia: Forces Battle Militants In Daghestan --> Daghestan has been plagued by violence in recent years (epa) Russian security forces have been battling a group of armed militants allegedly linked with the Chechen separatist leadership in the southern republic of Daghestan for the past three days. Security officials claim the operation is nearly over. However, reports from the site of the fighting seem to contradict those claims.

Prague, 5 January 2006 (RFE/RL) -- As the sun was setting on Daghestan’s Untsuluk district, Russian media reported the operation was nearing completion.

The ITAR-TASS and RIA-Novosti news agencies quoted security officials as saying federal troops had seized the entrenched positions the armed militants had been defending for the past 60 hours. However, except for a few religious books and scores of tin cans used to make exploding devices, the place was reportedly empty.

Security Sweep

Russian officials say the surrounding areas will be thoroughly searched early tomorrow and that they will make no additional comments until the security sweep is over.

The fighting has been taking place in a forest close to the village of Gimry, some 25 kilometers southwest of the town of Buynaksk.

Daghestan's Interior Ministry claims five militants were killed during the fighting.

In comments made to RFE/RL’s North Caucasus Service, Gimry administration head Abdulla Magomedov cast some doubts on the Russian account of events.

"We do not have sufficient information, except from what we’re getting from television. They say the bodies of the fighters have not been found. They also say they may continue and complete the operation tomorrow," Magomedov said. "For the time being, they’ve stopped using helicopters and heavy artillery. They need to comb the place, to search carefully. Today they couldn’t capture anyone."

The operation officially started in the early hours of 3 January. Federal troops then reported surrounding a group of eight armed militants living in a makeshift shelter halfway between Gimry -- the birthplace of 19th century anti-Russian resistance leader Imam Shamil -- and the village of Shamilkala.

The difficult terrain may explain why security forces have been experiencing such difficulties in dislodging the fighters. However, pro-independence Chechen media have suggested another explanation, putting the number of militants at 30.

Russian officials say the fighters are the remnants of a larger group known as Cennet and Shari'a (literally, the Garden of Eden and the Islamic Law) that was previously led by local field commander Rasul Makasharipov.

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Makasharipov, whom authorities blame for a series of attacks against federal troops and the killing of Daghestani government officials earlier this year, reportedly died in a July firefight with federal forces in the regional capital Makhachkala.

Security officials say they believe Omar Sheikhullayev, the man who took over from Makasharipov and an alleged participant in last year's school hijacking in Beslan, could be among the fighters spotted near Gimry.

Russian and Daghestani authorities say they believe the militants entered Daghestan from neighboring Chechnya. However, Gimry administration head Magomedov says the identify of the fighters is unclear. "The rumor has it that these men came from outside, that they have been fighting in Chechnya. Whether they are local people, or outsiders is not clear," Magomedov said.

The security operation has been involving artillery, armored vehicles, Russian army commandos, Daghestani Interior Ministry troops, and special police forces. RIA-Novosti has put the number of security forces at 300.

Daghestani Interior Minister Adilgerei Magomedtagirov today said Marines and special troops of the Russian Army's Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) had been sent in overnight from Makhachkala.

In comments made to Russian journalists near the site of the fighting, Daghestani Interior Ministry spokesman Abdulmanap Musayev denied pro-independence Chechen media reports that up to 50 troops had been killed.

"Six people have been wounded and one army soldier has been killed. We suffered no other losses so far. We will provide additional information about our losses when the operation is over," Musayev said.

Musayev earlier said two special police officers had been missing and were feared dead. Reports that their bodies have been retrieved could not be immediately verified.