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Caucusus: Heaviest Clashes Reported In Ingushetia Since Beginning Of Chechen Campaign

Prague, 26 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Fierce fighting between federal troops and armed Chechen separatists was reported today in Ingushetia, a southern Russian republic neighboring breakaway Chechnya.

It is the first time such large-scale combat operations have erupted in that area since the beginning of the first Chechen war in 1994.

The deputy head of the federal military command in the North Caucasus, Colonel Boris Podoprigora, told Russia's First Channel television (formerly ORT) that early this morning a group of about 150 armed separatists attempted to break through the village of Galashki, southeast of Magas, the capital of Ingushetia.

Russian media report that police forces, soon reinforced by troops from the 58th Army headquartered nearby, moved to intercept the intruders, killing and wounding some 70 assailants. Federal forces claimed they succeeded in chasing the separatists out of Galashki, but the report could not be independently confirmed.

At least 10 Russian soldiers lost their lives in the fighting, and an estimated 15 others were wounded. Among the casualties were the two pilots of a Russian Mi-24 combat helicopter that was shot down.

The Chechen Kavkaz-Center news agency quoted a separatist commander identified as Emir Sultan as saying the clashes began yesterday and that casualties among the Chechen fighters have been minimal. The separatist commander also described the fighting as "very intense" at midday today and that it stretched between Galashki and Bamut, on the other side of the Chechen-Ingush administrative border.

Russian television said federal forces cordoned off Galashki and that local authorities managed to evacuate some residents by bus early today. Located in the immediate vicinity of Chechnya, Galashki has a population of about 6,000 and is also home to some 1,500 Chechen refugees.

Kavkaz-Center reported that Russian military aircraft and field artillery were pounding the village and its surroundings for the second consecutive day. Witnesses quoted by France's AFP news agency and Russian television claim one local resident was killed and two others were wounded, but they could not provide further details.

Federal military authorities claimed the armed intruders entered Ingushetia from neighboring Northern Ossetia, another southern Russian republic, and were heading for western Chechnya when they were intercepted.

Russian television said the Chechen fighters had been hiding for several days in the vicinity of Tarskoye, a rural settlement in eastern Northern Ossetia, from which they were dislodged by federal troops after three nights of intense bombing.

Unidentified security officials in Moscow told Russia's ITAR-TASS news agency that the Chechen fighters were flown to Northern Ossetia onboard Georgian military helicopters about two weeks ago. Tbilisi has not reacted yet to the accusations.

Moscow has been blaming Georgia for harboring Chechen separatists and allowing them to use the Pankisi Gorge, a mountainous area bordering Chechnya to the south, as a base of operations for armed forays against Russian troops.

Tbilisi has denied the claims, accusing Russia in turn of purposely driving Chechen fighters across the border.

On 25 August, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze ordered a police operation to restore law and order in Pankisi and cleanse the area of all smugglers and armed fighters reportedly located there. The security sweep has resulted in the arrest of about one dozen wanted criminals and about as many fighters, whose connections with the Chechen separatist leadership remain unclear.

Yet, Moscow is not satisfied and on 11 September threatened to bomb alleged Pankisi-based Chechen training camps if Georgian authorities fail to flush separatists out of the area.

Moscow also blamed the Georgian government for tipping off Chechen separatists about the upcoming Pankisi operation. Russia notably said Chechen field commander Ruslan Gelaev and his men were able to leave Pankisi in complete peace and move to other parts of Georgian territory.

Gelaev's present whereabouts are unknown. Georgian Deputy Security Minister Lasha Natsvlishvili today suggested that he might have returned to Chechnya.

Russian authorities initially blamed Gelaev for the fighting in Galashki, but they later identified the commander of the armed group as 25-year-old Vitali Smirnov, a Russian convert from Chechnya who is also known as Abdulmalik.

In what sounded like fresh grievances toward Georgia, the Kremlin today issued a statement saying Abdulmalik -- reportedly Gelaev's lieutenant -- was previously based in Pankisi.