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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Pre-Dawn Raiders Hit Tank Base In Dagestan

At least four people were killed when gunmen attacked a Russian tank unit in Dagestan early Monday morning, battling for several hours with federal forces before escaping over the border into Chechnya with six hostages, Russian military officials said.

The attackers, estimated at 30 to 80 men, left at least two dead civilians and several wounded in their trail and heavy destruction at the army base near the town of Buinaksk, 85 kilometers from the Chechen border in the Russian republic of Dagestan.

The clash was the most serious in the region since the 21-month Russian-Chechen war ended last year. It erupted as Russia and the breakaway republic of Chechnya are preparing high-level meetings pending a visit by President Boris Yeltsin to Grozny, the Chechen capital.

Two Russian soldiers were wounded in the fighting, and two of the attackers were killed, Interfax reported. Russian troops, who claimed to have captured several of the attackers, said they were Chechens and Dagestanis.

Authorities in Chechnya denied any involvement.

Armed with assault rifles, machine guns and grenade launchers, the attackers struck at 2:30 a.m. Monday. They quickly destroyed two tanks and several trucks and set fire to 10 storage tanks containing jet fuel. The unit's helicopters appeared to be grounded, a journalist from the daily Izvestia reported.

Fighting also hit the town of Buinaksk itself. The two electricity stations were hit and the town was without heating and electricity Monday, news agencies said.

The gunmen, who had arrived in a truck and two cars, made off toward Chechnya with five Dagestani police as hostages. The secretary of the Dagestani Security Council, Magomed Tolboyev, said some gunmen hijacked a car as they retreated and shot and killed the driver.

At the village of Almak near the border, they abandoned the truck and hijacked a bus at about 8 a.m. Most of the group crossed the border on foot with six hostages, including two policemen and the head of the local administration, Tolboyev said.

Some more gunmen were thought to be still in Almak with the police hostages as Russian forces surrounded the village.

At least two other groups were reported to have launched attacks farther north in Dagestan in what seemed to be a coordinated action. A Russian Interior Ministry unit stationed close to the Chechen border said it had repelled an attack by 20 gunmen around 9 a.m. There were no casualties among Russian troops, but a civilian guard was reported killed and two others wounded.Dagestani police also arrested a group of five men they accused of planting explosives on a bridge in the town of Kizlyar. "It seems to have been widely spread and planned," Andrei Chernenko, chief spokesman for the Interior Ministry, was quoted by Interfax as saying.

The violence seemed to catch the Chechen leadership by surprise. First Deputy Prime Minister Movladi Udugov slammed the attacks and said the government would try to prevent any further tension along the border, Interfax reported.

"We categorically denounce all provocative acts which go against the peace accords signed by Grozny and Moscow," he said in reference to the peace treaty signed in May by Yeltsin and Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov.

Shamil Basayev, former top Chechen field commander and now a deputy prime minster, said Monday that the president was investigating the attacks to see if Chechens were involved.

Chechnya had no interest in organizing such attacks, he said. "Our main task now is to support the population and tackle economic problems connected with winter," he said.

Maskhadov himself spent the weekend discussing conflict resolution with a delegation from the Hague Initiative, a group of legal experts and politicians that included Americans and a British member of parliament, David Willetts. Russian Security Council Secretary Ivan Rybkin, President Ruslan Aushev of Ingushetia and Tatarstan President Mintimer Shaimiyev were also present.

The fighting in Dagestan comes at a time of energetic negotiations between Moscow and Grozny to seal a fuller peace treaty and compensation for the war-torn republic. Last month Yeltsin declared his intention to visit the republic in January and set in motion a series of preparatory meetings.

Even though Yeltsin's recent illness has raised doubts about the visit, the latest fighting does not seem to have deterred him. Yeltsin's spokesman, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, said Yeltsin was briefed on Monday's fighting and there was "no reference to canceling" the visit.

Rybkin has been pushing ahead with preparations, and a Russian State Duma delegation left Monday for Grozny for talks with the Chechen parliament. Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin is also expected to visit Chechnya ahead of Yeltsin's visit, his office said.

The attack underscored the tentative nature of the peace in the region. It was reminiscent of a notorious hostage raid launched by Chechen fighters during the war on the town of Kizlyar in January last year. More than a 100 people were killed in that raid, which was led by the extremist Chechen commander Salman Raduyev.

Raduyev has threatened to launch more attacks on Russian bases and towns since the end of the war, although most Chechens dismiss his threats as empty. On Saturday, Raduyev spoke at a rally in Grozny saying that Yeltsin would have to face a death sentence if he came to Chechnya.