Russia to Cut Troops in Chechnya

President Vladimir Putin decided Monday to withdraw some of Russia's forces from the rebel region of Chechnya, Russian news agencies said.

The agencies said Putin, who announced his decision at a meeting with top ministers, had also ordered the head of the FSB domestic security service, a successor to the Soviet-era KGB, to take over command of the operation from the Defence Ministry.

"This (FSB) is the body which under the constitution should carry out the fight against terrorism," Interfax quoted Putin as saying. "This does not mean that counter-terrorism operations have ended. They will continue, not less intensively, but with the emphasis on different force and means," he added.

Interfax quoted Putin as saying an army division numbering 15,000 and an Interior Ministry brigade of up to 7,000 servicemen would be permanently based in the region on Russia's southern rim.

But he added that a supplementary contingent would remain in Chechnya initially and withdraw when conditions allowed this.

The precise number of Russian forces fighting separatist forces in Chechnya is unknown, but military analysts believe there are up to 90,000 troops reporting to the Defence Ministry and Interior Ministry.

Russian troops are nominally in control of most of Chechnya after a 15-month offensive, and Putin is extending powers to pro-Moscow Chechen leaders to try to get the region, shattered by two Kremlin crackdowns since 1994, back on its feet.

Putin signed a decree on Friday boosting the powers of local leaders in Chechnya, a day after telling ministers to draft proposals on reducing troops and boosting the economy of the breakaway province.

Russian military chiefs have said they want to use small, mobile units to eliminate the rebels. But troops remain subject to ambushes and at least 2,500 have died in the current drive.


Putin's announcement comes hard on the heels of media reports of renewed large-scale fighting in the breakaway province over the weekend. Russia denied the reports and said there had been only minor attacks and some shooting.

Russian news agencies had reported running street battles between Russian forces and Chechen rebels in Gudermes, the restive region's second town, Sunday and rebel spokesman Movladi Udugov said fighters had killed at least 20 Russian soldiers and two pro-Moscow Chechen policemen.

"There were no large-scale clashes, much less any mass attacks by militants in Gudermes," said an official in the office of Sergei Yastrzhembsky, the Kremlin's chief spokesman on Chechnya.

"Similarly, there was no eight-hour battle. The shooting was intensive, but rather short," the official said. "We cannot speak of 20 dead because that is simply absurd."

The official in Yastrzhembsky's office confirmed reports of an attack on a local police post by rebels, resulting in the deaths of four officers. Itar-Tass news agency said on Sunday that the fighting broke out after rebels fired on a police post, killing an officer of the crack OMON riot police force.

He also confirmed reports of a bomb explosion in a cafe in Gudermes, which injured several civilians and one soldier.

Yastrzhembsky's office said four Chechen policemen had been killed in the fighting and some rebels had been wounded. Udugov, speaking by satellite telephone from an undisclosed location, told Reuters the rebels had suffered only three wounded.