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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Sergeyev: Troops Won't Stop at Terek

As Russian artillery pounded Chechen positions on several fronts, Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev said Russian forces would eventually cross the Terek River and attempt to occupy and control the whole of Chechnya.

Leading Chechen fighters responded that they would soon unleash a wave of terror attacks on Russian targets, including assassinations of top Russian political figures.

Sergeyev's remarks signaled a dramatic departure from earlier talk of simply occupying the top third of Chechnya - the flat plains north of the Terek. Controlling those open steppes has always proven far easier for Russian forces than moving into urban areas like the capital city, Grozny, or the more mountainous regions of the south.

"The troops will not stop [at the Terek]," Sergeyev said, in remarks reported by Itar-Tass, the Russian state news agency. "They will continue performing their tasks to eliminate bandit formations and terrorist groups on Chechen territory."

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who has been the architect and driving force behind the war, did not comment on Sergeyev's remarks Tuesday. But Putin has said the war will not stop as long as Chechen terrorists - who he blames for the recent wave of apartment bombings in Russia that left nearly 300 dead - are in federal custody.

Chechnya's leader, President Aslan Maskhadov, said Putin and the Kremlin would eventually have to sit down to talks - even if only after another protracted war like the 21-month conflict of 1994-1996, when tens of thousands of people were killed and Grozny demolished.

"Russian politicians are purposefully saying Chechens blew up their houses so they could start this bloody war here, but thousands of young soldiers will again die, and their mothers will come looking for them," Maskhadov said.

"But sooner or later, and this is a 100 percent certainty, Russia will have to come and sit at the negotiating table."

Maskhadov's call for talks got backing Tuesday from Krasnoyarsk Governor Alexander Lebed, the retired general who worked out a peace treaty with Chechnya three years ago. Lebed said Russia risks a protracted conflict if it does not start talking to the Chechens.

"The system is destabilizing," he said. He said fighting may spread to other areas in the Caucasus region, threatening "eternal war, like in Afghanistan."

Maskhadov has offered to clamp down on extremists as part of a peace plan. But Prime Minister Putin has said he will talk only if Maskhadov hands over rebel leaders Shamil Basayev and the Jordan-born Khattab.

Maskhadov, who has refused to criticize Basayev, dismissed Putin's right to condemn his fighters.

"Putin is not a judge to say who is a criminal and who is not," he said, adding he would not abandon peace efforts.

Maskhadov also denied again that Basayev, a hero to many Chechens but Russia's most wanted man, was trapped by Russian forces in Garagorsk, 60 kilometers northwest of Grozny.

A Russian general said Monday that Basayev was trapped "like a lousy dog." Sergeyev confirmed that fighting was underway near the village in question.

"This is a very difficult center of bandit resistance, it has been surrounded," Sergeyev told reporters. "The terrorists' losses are significant," he added, without giving details.

On Monday, in a telephone interview from Chechnya with Agence France Presse, Basayev said Russian authorities "would soon have the opportunity to show how they fight terrorism aimed at Russian citizens."

"[Terrorist attacks] may happen in the near future," Basayev said. "I have the people and means to carry them out."

The Defense Ministry said Tuesday that another prominent warlord, Salman Raduyev, was also planning terrorist attacks inside Russia - perhaps on nuclear targets.

Raduyev on Tuesday denied suggestions he was planning attacks on nuclear facilities "because the consequences of this cannot be predicted," Interfax reported. But Raduyev said he will commit acts of sabotage at strategic Russian installations unless Russia calls a halt to air strikes against Chechnya, the news agency said.

Another Chechen warlord, Abu Movsayev, said Tuesday he has ordered his followers "to carry out a [death] sentence on three highly placed Russian military-political leaders guilty of the genocide of the Chechen people in 1994-96," Interfax reported. Movsayev did not say who the targets were.

Sergeyev said Tuesday the army had almost finished imposing a security zone around Chechnya, but the rebel forces were continuing to resist with heavy fighting in some areas. "The situation in Chechnya is under control," Sergeyev told Itar-Tass, but added that the army still had "complicated tasks ahead of it."

The Russians moved into Chechnya three weeks ago ostensibly to establish a security zone to prevent Chechen militants from invading other regions in southern Russia.

Both the Russians and the Chechens have been fortifying fixed positions in recent days, and neither side has launched any major offensives.

The Russians have been relying mostly on big artillery guns, and were hammering two areas north of Chechnya's capital Grozny on Tuesday. The echo of the exploding shells could be heard throughout the city.

The Russians were also methodically shelling near the western town of Bamut, which has been under attack for several days.