MOSCOW (Reuters) -- Russian Security forces said today they had killed at least 20 insurgents in the Ingushetia region of the North Caucasus where Moscow faces a rebel challenge to control of its mainly Muslim southern flank.
A police official said the death toll included 10 deaths on February 11 in an continuing operation in a mountainous area near the border with Chechnya.
Violence is growing in the patchwork of southern regions -- including Chechnya, the site of two separatist wars with Moscow since the mid-1990s, and Ingushetia -- that make up the North Caucasus. Islamist militancy overlaps with the activity of criminal groups and clan and ethnic rivalries.
"According to our latest figures around 20 insurgents have been killed, but the number of dead could be higher," the police official said. "We are searching the area for the rest of the insurgents."
Local leaders in Ingushetia, with a population of some 300,000, say poverty and unemployment are fuelling the insurgency, though Russia's security services say links to Al-Qaeda also play a part.
Last month Russian President Dmitry Medvedev appointed former metals executive Alexander Khloponin to head the North Caucasus Federal District, including Ingushetia, to try to target the corruption, unemployment, and poverty that is seen threatening an area important to the security of energy transit.
An Ingush police officer stationed close to the site of today's clash said Russian forces had fired at rebel positions from helicopters during an intense battle.
Security measures have been strengthened to prevent the violence from crossing over into neighboring Chechnya, the region's President Ramzan Kadyrov said on February 11.
"We have overturned a hornets nest and now we need to completely eliminate it," news agency RIA quoted Kadyrov as saying.