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Five Police Killed In Chechnya As Violence Grows

GROZNY, Russia (Reuters) -- Five police officers were shot dead in an ambush in Russia's Chechnya, officials have said, the latest in a string of attacks that have undermined the relative calm seen in the province in recent years.

The attack comes amid growing violence in Russia's wider North Caucasus region that has pushed local Islamist insurgencies up the Kremlin's agenda.

Late on August 2, militants attacked a column of police cars near the town of Itum-Kale, 65 kilometers south of the regional capital, Grozny, a police spokeswoman said.

"As a result of the battle, five police were killed and four were injured," she said. "So far there is no information on the number of militants or their casualties."

In two separate incidents the same day, three workers from Russia's Emergency Situations Ministry were gunned down in the Ingushetia region, which neighbors Chechnya to the west, and a policeman was shot dead overnight in Daghestan to the east.

"The scale of insurgency operations in Ingushetia, Daghestan, and Chechnya is getting quite staggering," said Tatyana Lokshina, an expert on the North Caucasus with Human Rights Watch. "The Kremlin is definitely worried."

Chechnya, the scene of two separatist wars since 1994, saw a sharp fall in violence after the Kremlin handed power to former rebel Ramzan Kadyrov in 2007. Rights groups said his forces achieved stability through a campaign of kidnap and torture.

In May, Chechen Interior Minister Ruslan Alkhanov said there were no "terror attacks" in the region in 2008 for the first time in years.

But amid a growing number of low-level attacks, five policemen died in a suicide bombing in the center of the Chechen capital two weeks ago. Days earlier, a top local rights activist was kidnapped in the center of Grozny and killed.

The relative peace under Kadyrov allowed Moscow to end a counterterrorism operation in the republic in April after 10 years, lifting a security regime that included curfews, spot searches, and arbitrary detention.

But analysts say other factors have been more important in fuelling the violence. Economic hardship and heavy-handed clampdowns by regional leaders are persuading more young men to join the rebels, swelling their ranks, Lokshina said.

Pavel Baev, an analyst with the Oslo-based International Peace Research Institute, said a fall in funds provided by Moscow, due to the financial crisis, made it harder for Kadyrov to buy off violent rivals.

The recent spate of attacks in Chechnya is a sign Kadyrov's power is on the wane, he said.

"For a while Kadyrov seemed to be defeating the rebels," Baev said. "But this now looks like it was a temporary retreat...rebel forces exhausted by a long war have regained their strength."