Over a period of five days last week, militants in Chechnya inflicted serious casualties on pro-Moscow Chechen forces in a series of coordinated attacks in adverse weather conditions.
On February 18, the Chechen Interior Ministry admitted
to having lost a total of 17 officers killed, and a further 24 wounded.
It was the second such major battle so far this year.
As such, it demonstrates the enhanced combat effectiveness of the Chechnya-based insurgents, and may also herald a sustained long-term intensification of hostilities.
Ever since the Chechen insurgents retreated from Grozny during the night of January 31, 2000, accurately assessing the intensity of sporadic low-level fighting between the insurgency and pro-Moscow Chechen and federal forces has been bedeviled by a dearth of reliable information.
Russian and Western media tend to promulgate unquestioningly Chechen officials' claims of the losses inflicted on the insurgency, claims that are frequently inconsistent and/or seemingly exaggerated.
The insurgents are not always able to promptly provide their own version of what happened, but their estimates of enemy casualties, whether posted on the main insurgency website Kavkazcenter or relayed in phone calls or SMS messages to RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service, are almost always higher than those admitted to by Chechen and Moscow officials.
Reports of the most recent fighting in Chechnya's south-eastern Nozhai-Yurt district, on the border with Daghestan, conform to that pattern.
Piecing together and comparing reports from the Chechen authorities, Kavkazcenter, and Chechen officials who spoke to the Caucasus Knot news agency on condition of anonymity, the following chronology emerges.
Differing Death Tolls
Late on February 13, some 30-40 insurgents lured police from Chechnya's neighboring Vedeno district into an ambush and attacked them from two sides, killing five and wounding at least six of them.
The insurgents retreated without incurring casualties despite the deployment on February 14 of heavy artillery and military helicopters.
Kavkaz-Uzel quoted unnamed Chechen sources
as saying on February 15 that the search for the fighters had ended unsuccessfully the previous day.
But fighting resumed on the morning of February 15 after the insurgents opened fire on Chechen Special Purpose Interior Ministry forces (spetsnaz). An insurgent who succeeded after numerous failed attempts in calling RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service reported against a background of deafening artillery fire that the insurgents had killed four police officers and wounded at least 13.
A Chechen law enforcement official confirmed the killing
of four police to Kavkaz-Uzel.
On February 16, Chechen officials said the fighting had shifted to the neighboring Kazbekov district of Daghestan, where Daghestani, Chechen and federal forces backed by military helicopters reportedly engaged in two successive fierce gun battles with three separate groups of insurgents totaling "several dozen" in all.
They said two of those groups were led by Daghestani amirs Ruslan Temirkaev and Arslan Mamedov (aka Amir Muaz), and the third by a Chechen, Makharbi Timiraliyev, 47. (Intercepts of walkie-talkie communications presumably facilitated the identification of the three commanders.)
Five more police officers were reported killed
and six wounded in that fighting.
As of the morning of February 17, the death toll
among the pro-Moscow Chechen forces was given as 11, with a further 17 wounded, compared with the 14 killed claimed by Kavkazcenter.
No further details were given of fighting on February 17-18, so it remains unclear when and in what circumstances the death toll among the pro-Moscow Chechen forces rose from 11 (or 14) to 17.
Also on February 17, Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov claimed that
Timiraliyev's entire detachment of seven men had been killed in Nozhai-Yurt.
But Kavkaz-Uzel on February 18 quoted law enforcement officials
as saying the hunt for the last remaining members of Timiraliyev's group was continuing.
The insurgency website Kavkazcenter confirmed the death
of Timiraliyev and four of his men. Five bodies said to be those of the slain fighters were shown on Chechen state TV.
Fighting Spills Over?
Meanwhile, a senior Daghestani official denied on February 17 that the fighting had spilled over from Chechnya to Daghestan.
Security Council secretary Magomed Baachilov told Interfax that military operations
were confined to Chechen territory, and no fighters had penetrated Daghestan from Chechnya.
Nonetheless, RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service was informed that fighting did indeed take place in Daghestan's Kazbekov district on February 17.
The insurgency's tactics in Nozhai-Yurt were the same as those used in fighting in Vedeno in early January.
On that earlier occasion, one group of insurgents had also lured Chechen police into an ambush; two other groups attacked along a radius of 15-20 kilometers.
The pro-Moscow Chechen losses over a period of several days were officially given
as four dead and 14 wounded.
Kavkazcenter cited a higher figure
of at least 14 dead and 36 wounded.
The Chechen authorities subsequently produced three bodies they identified as insurgents killed in the fighting.
Chechen human rights activists, however, claimed the men had been taken
from Kadyrov's private prison, dressed in winter camouflage, and shot dead.
Just days into the new year, a group numbering around 10 insurgents had opened fire on Chechen police in Yandy, south-west of Grozny, then retreated.
Despite the deployment of artillery and combat helicopters, the hunt for them
ended in failure four days later.
If the insurgency indeed succeeded in killing up to 30 Chechen and Russian police in Vedeno and Nozhai-Yurt with a loss of only five of its own fighters, that ratio testifies to their increasing tactical superiority.
Moreover, as Kavkazcenter pointed out, the fighting took place in rugged mountainous terrain in heavy snow.
That latter circumstance raises the question: are such attacks the start of a training program to hone insurgents' skills in winter warfare with the ultimate intention of disrupting the Winter Olympics in Sochi in two years' time?
Or do they herald a switch in tactics from occasional high-profile suicide attacks, such as those on Kadyrov's home village of Khosi-Yurt
in August 2010 and the targeting of Chechen police in Grozny one year later, to more frequent coordinated attacks on Chechen police in the mountain districts where the insurgents maintain their network of bases?