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Russia: Chechen Fighters Break Through Security Cordon, Release Hostages

Prague, 16 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Military operations are continuing today to hunt down armed Chechen militants who briefly seized a village in Russia's southern republic of Daghestan.

The fighters, believed to be part of a group of at least 60, yesterday entered the village of Galatli, a tiny mountain settlement located in western Daghestan.

By mid-afternoon today, the militants had reportedly managed to break through a cordon of Russian border guards and Daghestani policemen set up during the night. No clashes were reported.

Russia's RTR state television channel says the insurgents left behind the 11 male villagers they had taken hostage.

Authorities blame the group for the deaths of nine border guards yesterday near Shauri, a settlement located some 20 kilometers east of the Georgian border. From Shauri, the fighters proceeded to Galatli, a few kilometers to the north, where they spent the night surrounded by Russian and Daghestani security forces.

In comments made to the RIA-Novosti news agency today, General Nikolai Lesinskii, the officer commanding the Russian border guards in the Northern Caucasus region, said seven rebels were killed in overnight clashes in western Daghestan.

The report, however, could not be independently confirmed, and it remains unclear whether the clashes involved the Galatli hijackers or another group of insurgents. Also unclear is the identity of the militants.

Addressing reporters yesterday, Daghestan's Moscow representative, Ramazan Mamedov, said the raiders might include a number of foreigners -- although he provided no evidence to sustain his claims. "I don't rule out the possibility that there may be foreign mercenaries among [those fighters]," he said. "But it is absolutely not true that there are no Chechens among them. There is no doubt that there are Chechen insurgents among them, because they know that area very well, they have contacts there, they often cross the Georgian border, the Russian border, to get into Georgia."

Russian Interior Ministry representative Ismel Shaov today claimed that among the insurgents blamed for the killing of the nine border guards yesterday were mercenaries from CIS countries. "Our information shows that the group which carried out this action is commanded by a field commander known as Dadaev," he said. "This group has been dispersed and its members are being hunted down. We also have information showing that among them were mercenaries who came from countries of the far and near abroad."

Russian media said the fighters who fled Galatli were headed toward neighboring Georgia. But a security official identified as Magomed Abdullaev told Agence France Presse that the group fled to an "undisclosed location in Daghestan."

The commander of the Georgian border guards yesterday said he had dispatched reinforcements to the Daghestani border to bar the insurgents from entering the country. General Valeri Chkheidze also said he is coordinating moves with his Russian counterparts to prevent any unexpected developments.

Russian claims that Georgia was harboring Chechen fighters on its territory have in the past led to open confrontation between the two neighbors.

Initial reports that the Galatli hostage takers had entered Daghestan from Georgia have proved unfounded. Interior Ministry officials in Daghestan now say the fighters may have come either from neighboring Chechnya or remote Daghestani mountain villages.

The "Chechen Times" website yesterday reported that forces loyal to separatist Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov recently attempted to free a Western medical worker whom unidentified gunmen had reportedly abducted several months ago. The Internet daily said it had no further information on the operation, which was carried out in the administrative district that includes Shauri and Galatli.