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Fighting Reported Southwest Of Grozny

Moscow, July 9 (RFE/RL) -- There are reports of fighting today between Russian troops and Chechen separatists near the village of Gekhi, southwest of the Chechen capital Grozny.

Itar-Tass news agency quotes the deputy prime minister of the pro-Russian Chechen government, Kharon Amirkhanov, as saying there have been at least three Russian casualties in the fighting.

Correspondents said the clash appears to be the worst since a ceasefire went into effect last month.

The reports of the fighting come as a deadline nears for Chechen separatists to hand over Russian prisoners of war. The commander of Russian forces in Chechnya, Lt. Gen. Vyacheslav Tikhomirov, said yesterday that the prisoners must be released today or face the threat of military action.

In an interview today with Reuters news agency, Chechen rebel spokesman Movladi Udugov said separatist fighters will execute Russian prisoners if Russian forces take what he called provocative actions against civilians and renew warfare.

Meanwhile, the pro-Russian Chechen interior ministry said today that the ministry's communications chief, Viktor Zaitsev, and two aides were killed in an attack late yesterday by unidentified assailants.

Also today, a Russian military spokesman was quoted as saying a night-time curfew across Chechnya has been ordered to begin tomorrow.