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Russia: Chechens Attack Russian Troops In Major Battle

Grozny/Moscow; 8 October 1999 (RFE/RL) - Chechen forces attacked Russian troops early today in what appears to be the bloodiest fighting between the two sides since the end of their 1994 to 1996 war. Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov's office said the breakaway republic's forces attacked Russian positions in Ishcherskaya on the north bank of the Terek River. Russian commanders confirmed to the French news agency AFP that there had been heavy fighting and casualties in Ishcherskaya. One officer said that Russian units had encountered "heavy resistance and suffered losses."

In a surprise dawn raid that lasted four hours, the Chechen side claims its fighters killed 200 Russian soldiers, took 40 troops prisoner and destroyed 30 armored personnel carriers before retreating to their base. Maskhadov's office reported no casualty figures among its own forces.

In Moscow, the Defense Ministry said only that four Russian soldiers had died in the past 24 hours, but it was not clear if they died in this morning's battle.

Also in the Russian capital, Russian Interior Minister Vladimir Rushailo reiterated that Moscow would capture Chechen guerrilla leaders Shamil Basayev and Khattab dead or alive. He said Russian security forces were tracking down the two men.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has vowed to put Basayev and Khattab on trial if they are caught. Today, Putin said Russia has the right to deploy its forces wherever it wanted in Chechnya, which he said is an integral part of Russia.

Russia says its campaign in Chechnya is aimed at defeating Muslim rebels who have twice invaded the neighboring Russian republic of Dagestan. Russia also accuses them of bomb attacks in Russian towns which killed nearly 300 people. Russia has said it wants to create a security buffer zone to prevent further attacks. The rebels and Chechen officials deny any link to the bomb attacks in Russia.

More than 130,000 Chechens have fled the fighting, most to neighbouring Ingushetia. The Ingushetian president said today his republic was severely strained by the influx and could not feed or shelter all the displaced persons.