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Russia: Heavy Fighting Reported In Russia's Southern Stavropol Krai --> A screen grab shows locals being evacuated to safety today (AFP) Heavy fighting erupted yesterday between security forces and alleged Islamic militants in Russia's southern region of Stavropol. The clashes erupted in Stavropol Krai's eastern Neftekum Raion, an area that had not been touched recently by unrest despite its proximity to Chechnya and Daghestan.

PRAGUE, 10 February 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The fighting has been taking place in Tukui-Mekteb, a small settlement located west of Daghestan and north of Chechnya.

Up to 300 Interior Ministry troops and special police officers have been battling alleged Islamic militants entrenched in several village houses. Security forces have destroyed at least two of the buildings with the help of tanks.

Sporadic fighting was still being reported early this evening.

There was no immediate report of casualties among villagers. Russian television reports that authorities managed to evacuate residents at dawn today.

Heavy Casualties

Viktor Barnash, the head of Stavropol Krai's Organized Crime Department, told reporters that losses were suffered on both sides.

"A full-scale operation is under way to eliminate underground gangs in the North Caucasus region," Barnash said. "Unfortunately, as of today there have been losses among Interior Ministry forces. There also have been significant losses among members of those underground groups."

Interior Ministry officials say at least six of their officers died in the fighting and that another five were wounded. They claim at least 11 gunmen were also killed.

RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Lada Ledenyova filed the following report at mid-afternoon today.

"Eleven fighters have been killed. However, regional police believe several of them managed to escape," Ledenyova said. "The operation began at about 16:00 on Thursday [9 February] after information was received about a weapons and ammunition cache in a deserted bathhouse. An operational squad was sent to the place, but did not find any [weapons] cache. Instead, it came under militant fire."

Fierce Resistance

Boris Ostankovich is a Stavropol-based reporter who witnessed today's developments. Speaking to RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service from Tukui-Mekteb, he said law-enforcement officers encountered fierce resistance.

"Local police reinforcements were first sent in, then special forces from Stavropol," Ostankovich said. "The militants first took refuge in one house, then split and took control of five houses."

Barnash claims the fighters were planning a series of terrorist attacks in the region, including the seizure of a school. However, he did not say how he obtained this information. There was no immediate report of militants being captured.

The identity and nationality of the fighters is unclear.

Ostankovich say they are not from the region.

"They are outsiders who came from various regions," Ostankovich said. "According to the information that was made available to us, they are members of the Shelkovskaya jamaat [Islamic community] of Chechnya."

Perpetrators Unknown

Vasily Belchenko, an official with Stavropol Krai's Anti-Terrorism Commission, told the Interfax news agency the militants were ethnic Nogais with alleged ties to the Chechen separatist leadership. Interior Ministry officials could not confirm Belchenko's claims.

The Nogais are a Sunni Muslim Turkic people scattered across Turkey, Daghestan, Chechnya, and Stavropol Krai's Neftekum Raion. An estimated 65,000 Nogais live in Russia's North Caucasus.

Reports say ethnic Nogais in Stavropol Krai have long suffered harassment from regional authorities, which claim they hold radical Islamic views.

Russia's North Caucasus experts say that out of despair many young Nogais decided to join forces with Chechnya's armed resistance in the late 1990s. They also say regional authorities are to blame for driving representatives of the Nogai national movement into the ranks of radical Islamic groupings.

Interfax quoted a spokesman for Stavropol Krai's Interior Ministry, Viktor Ignatyev, as saying that following today's unrest authorities ordered preventative measures to be taken across the entire region.

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