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MAKHACHKALA, Russia -- At least four militants died overnight in Russia's Daghestan region as clashes between government security forces and rebels took the number of dead to 20 in three days, Russian media reported.

Five policemen have been killed since clashes started on March 19 in the mainly Muslim region in the North Caucasus, which has a tradition of rebellion against Moscow's rule.

Most of the deaths were in the Karabudakhkentsky region, 30 kilometers south of the regional capital Makhachkala.

The four militants opened fire at special armed forces in Makhachkala late on March 20, a spokesman for Daghestan's internal ministry told Reuters.

National state television Vesti-24 showed four bodies lying among shattered glass near a battered white Lada car.

"This is the third day of a special operation to rid the area of militants," Daghestan's internal ministry deputy head Takhir Ramazanov said on Vesti-24 television.

"It has become clear they have fled to the mountains," he said, adding that up to eight militants could be hiding in the snow-covered peaks.

Both the internal ministry and the local FSB security service told Reuters they were continuing with the operation to rid the region of the gunmen.

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

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.