Russia to Act Against Chechen Gangs

Russia wants to work with the breakaway region of Chechnya to rid it of criminals and kidnappers - but does not rule out robust action of its own if that fails, government officials said Tuesday.

"We should, using combined forces, fight to remove illegal armed groups so we can clean up Chechnya, get rid of these forces and create conditions so they cannot return. ... We need further talks," Nationalities Minister Vyacheslav Mikhailov told a news conference.

Chechnya and nearby areas remain volatile or even lawless despite the end of a 1994-96 war with Russia over Chechnya's bid for independence. Armed gangs operating outside Chechen government control abound. Kidnappings are common. And there have been several border clashes in recent weeks.

Russian government spokesman Alexander Mikhailov said diplomatic efforts would be backed by preemptive strikes if Chechen fighters looked set to mount border attacks and put Russian lives at risk.

"If there is a real threat against us, not just a potential threat, then of course we will launch strong strikes," he told reporters after the news conference.

Russian Interior Ministry troops launched a preemptive attack on Monday near the border between Chechnya and its neighboring region of Dagestan, in southern Russia, to prevent between 150 and 200 Chechen fighters from attacking the border post.

Mikhailov said the use of Russian helicopters and mortars was legal but any further attacks would first have to be seen to be in the interests of both the Russian and Chechen leadership.

Russian officials said the Chechens had carried automatic weapons. Chechen officials have not confirmed the clashes.

"The preemptive strikes complied with existing laws governing the military, the Interior Ministry and our respected army," he said. "Therefore when we deal with these attempts, in Stavropol [in southern Russia] or Dagestan, by armed people to attack border controls, weapons will be used without warning."

Interior Minister Vladimir Rushailo has accused prominent Chechen field commanders of trafficking drugs and of building houses with cellars where hostages can be held for ransom.

Russian news agencies reported that Russia might consider building a barbed-wire fence or ditches around Chechnya.

But Nationalities Minister Mikhailov said Russia would not cut off the tiny Moslem region which it insists is still part of its sovereign territory, and will remain so.

"It not possible to close the border," he said.

Chechnya says it is independent but no other country has recognized it.