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MOSCOW (Reuters) -- At least nine people have died since March 19 in armed clashes between government security forces and rebels in Russia's province of Daghestan, local media reported.

The clashes appeared to be the worst in weeks in the mainly Muslim region in the North Caucasus, which has a tradition of rebellions against Moscow's rule.

Five Interior Ministry soldiers died in the last two days in a large-scale operation targeting a group of gunmen hiding in a forest near a village some 30 kilometers south of the regional capital Makhachkala, RIA news agency reported.

"Three policemen have been wounded in the armed clashes," the agency quoted a Daghestani police spokesman as saying. "The active phase of the operation has now been suspended, because of the darkness. It will resume on Saturday morning," he said.

Police officials estimate losses among the rebels at between five and seven.

State-owned Vesti-24 channel showed heavy trucks and armored vehicles roaring up the mountainous area, as troops were encircling the forest. Helicopter gunships patrolled the area.

In Makhachkala, Russian security service and police agents shot dead four gunmen, as they were moving in a car "preparing an attack on security servicemen and, possibly, to plant a bomb in one of Makhachkala's districts," a security official told RIA.

A passer-by was wounded in the shoot-out, he said.

Daghestan, with a population of more than 2.5 million, is wedged between Chechnya and the Caspian.

Analysts say attacks on security forces may intensify, as economic problems and heavy-handed police tactics push many young men to join the ranks of Islamic guerrillas.